SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 137 - April 2010

China’s widening crackdown

The recently imposed eleven-year sentence on the Charter 08 author Liu Xiaobo is just the tip of a growing iceberg of repression in China, argues CHEN LIZHI. The following is edited extracts from a longer article carried in the Spring 2010 issue of Socialist magazine, produced by Chinese supporters of the CWI.

THE CHINESE REGIME’S crackdown on dissent is intensifying. In recent years, the one-party dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become more and more repressive, adopting a policy of ‘zero-tolerance’ towards any form of political dissent or civil discontent. In the past year, one high-profile trial has followed another, with courts handing out longer prison sentences to drum home their message to government critics on the left and the right.

At the same time, new measures have been announced to clamp down on the internet and to muzzle the more inquisitive sections of the media. Most recently, non-government organisations (NGOs) have been targeted. In a 8 February edict from the Ministry of Education in Beijing, the charity Oxfam Hong Kong was accused of "trying hard to infiltrate China", with its chairman branded "a key member of the opposition camp". Last year, the Gong Meng Open Government Initiative, a legal aid group which helped families hit by the melamine-tainted milk scandal, was forced to close and its leader was detained.

One case that has attracted enormous attention worldwide is that of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to eleven years in prison last Christmas for allegedly "inciting subversion of state power". Liu is a prominent dissident and well-known intellectual since the 1989 Democracy Movement in Beijing. This is the third time he has been jailed. Before his arrest in December 2008, he and another 300 dissidents drafted and co-signed Charter 08, a manifesto based on the Czechoslovak Charter 77, which calls for human rights and democracy, but also a market economy and privatisation in China. The Charter now has over 10,000 signatories.

But Liu Xiaobo’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. China today is experiencing the most serious crackdown for a decade or more. This raises important questions about where China is going, and why the regime feels so threatened despite what appears to be great economic successes.

Why is repression increasing?

THE CURRENT WAVE of repression is aimed not only at so-called pro-US and pan-democratic dissidents, but also against the left-wing and Maoists as well as ‘non-political’ victims of government policy. Last October, 34 people were arrested for attending a ‘national conference’ in Chongqing organised by the Chinese Communist Party (Maoist), an illegal underground Maoist party. Eight of them, and several others arrested later, have been put on trial for "engaging in terror actions and social disorder". From the early 21st century, leftists in China have been branded as ‘dangerous radicals’ by the government. Dozens at least of left-wingers, mostly Maoists, have been put in prison since then.

The list of victims of the current repression is much longer. Every year, hundreds of dissidents are thrown into prison or so-called ‘re-education through labour’ camps, or exiled from China. But in the period 1995 to 2005 there was a relative ‘thaw’ and few high-profile dissidents were jailed, unlike the situation today. According to official statistics, charges of ‘endangering state security’ have risen sharply, with more than 1,700 people arrested on such charges in 2008, a big jump from 742 the year before and only 296 in 2005.

The Chinese regime has a very complicated, brutal, but also decentralised (and largely ‘deregulated’) state punishment system. According to Apple Daily (Hong Kong), there are at least 700 named political prisoners in Chinese prisons (2009), and probably many more in labour camps. ‘Re-education through labour’ is a distinctive system, which China copied from the former Soviet Union, but with ‘Chinese characteristics’. Who gets to be ‘re-educated’, and for what reason, is decided by the police department rather than through the judicial system. Sentences can be up to four years. In addition to 1.5 million normal prisoners, there are 200,000–300,000 people in such camps. China is also the country that carries out the most executions. In 2008, according to Amnesty International, 1,718 people were sentenced to death in China, nearly five times more than Iran (346) which occupies second place.

Why, when economic growth is surging, is state repression increasing rather than easing? This is because the accumulating contradictions that accompany rapid growth – growth that is very unbalanced and chaotic – have made the CCP regime more and more afraid of losing control of society and its own ability to restore ‘order’. Mass unrest and crime have both risen in 2009, according to the ‘Annual Report on China’s Rule of Law’ issued by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in February 2010. In a damning indictment of government economic policy this report warns, "the wealth gap is widening and the proportion of people in poverty is growing".

The ‘crime’ of Liu Xiaobo

IN 2008, LIU and his co-thinkers, including some establishment figures such as top economist Mao Yushi and legal scholar Zhang Zhuhua, drafted and co-signed Charter 08 to call for "freedom, human rights, equality, a republic, democracy and a constitution". Rather than an attempt to ‘subvert the state’ or launch any form of organised opposition, Charter 08 is in reality an appeal addressed to the CCP regime urging it to adopt political reform. Liu Xiaobo defends capitalist ‘economic reform’, but wants the regime to make further political reform to transform China into "a real market economy". The regime’s punishment of Liu Xiaobo is therefore not because his ideas represent a decisive or clear alternative, but rather because he has challenged its authority and the interests of the ruling elite with the publication of Charter 08 and other writings. His liberal pro-capitalist views pose a challenge to the CCP-led model of capitalist development.

As Liu Xiaobo mentioned in a 2006 article, today’s CCP is a party purely based on "economic interests" and no more an "ideological" party. Keeping power was always the utmost objective for the CCP bureaucracy, even in the early years when, like the Stalinist Soviet Union, it rested on a top-down planned economy with full state ownership. Therefore, when the Maoist-Stalinist economic model entered a serious crisis more than thirty years ago, the CCP regime shifted step-by-step into accepting and leading China’s capitalist development, while keeping dictatorial power.

Socialists strongly protest the persecution of Liu Xiabao and other signatories of Charter 08, as well as the many other victims of the repression, but in no way does this imply any support for the political ideas contained in Charter 08. While Marxists and genuine socialists fight for basic democratic rights including many of the demands the charter raises, we completely reject its political conclusions, which in our opinion do not offer a way forward for the working masses or the struggle against one-party dictatorship.

Charter 08 calls unequivocally for capitalism and bourgeois property relations. It supports more privatisation, but says this should be carried out more "fairly". In items 14 and 15, for example, it states: "We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market".

If implemented, the privatisation of farm land advocated by Charter 08, and also by sections of the CCP hierarchy, would inevitably and quite rapidly lead to massive concentration of land in the hands of a new landowning elite with strong ties to finance capital, while millions more poor peasants would be driven from their land without other means of making a livelihood. Instead of land privatisation, socialists call for democratic and voluntary farmers’ cooperatives to control the land and develop more efficient large-scale farming, backed up by infrastructure investment and cheap or even free credit from a genuine workers’ and poor peasants’ government, elected and subject to democratic control.

Similarly, the call in Charter 08 to abolish government monopolies and encourage private business, would not benefit the working class or the poor. This has already been proved by massive privatisations carried out in China. It means transferring public assets from the control of corrupt officials to equally corrupt and exploiting capitalists, rather than allowing working people to run these companies democratically to meet society’s needs. Where similar neo-liberal policies have been carried out – in democratic capitalist states such as the US and in Europe – deregulation and the break-up of state monopolies has enormously benefited the speculators and big capital at the expense of employees and the public. Capitalist ‘anti-monopoly’ policies have never achieved their stated aim, and in most cases just create private and hugely profitable monopolies in areas such as utilities formerly under state control.

Socialists are implacable opponents of privatisation, which has widened the gap between rich and poor wherever and however it has been carried out. The same arguments about ‘fair’ and ‘orderly’ privatisation are used by ruling elites everywhere to disguise their theft of public assets. Neither is it accidental that those societies that have carried out the biggest privatisation programmes are far from being bastions of ‘democracy’: Russia in the 1990s, Chile under the dictator Pinochet, and China.

In his recent book Da Guo Chen Lun, Liu Xiaobo attacks the ‘red-black’ alliance between CCP officials and the rich. He argues that, "in a healthy market economy, there is an anti-monopoly law". But regardless of what laws exist on paper, in the real world of capitalism, wealth and power is increasingly concentrated in a few giant companies. In the US, which is Liu Xiaobo’s model, we see a dramatic example of this economic law – towards monopoly – under the impact of the global capitalist crisis. At the end of 2007, the four largest banks (Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo) held 32% of all US deposits, but this has risen to 39% today. This is an incredible and dangerous concentration of economic power in the hands of four unelected and uncontrolled institutions.

In history and in reality there has never been such a ‘real market economy’ as Liu envisages. From birth, capitalism has been accompanied by exploitation, violence and cheating for the pursuit of profits. While he pointedly criticises the CCP’s one-party regime, its corruption and incitement of nationalism, these defects are not unique to the CCP, but are phenomena across nearly all the neo-colonial world.

The evolution of China’s liberals

LIBERALISM, AND LATER neo-liberal and conservative ideology, have grown among intellectuals in China since the end of 1970s when the Chinese regime began its capitalist economic reform. At that time, liberal scholars formed a "friendly bridge" between the CCP regime, which was "opening-up", and the western capitalist world. Liu Xiaobo was part of this trend.

But the Democracy Movement of 1989 was a key turning point that also saw the ‘bridge’ collapse. The CCP regime, in order to repress the revolt of the working masses and control capitalist development in China for its own bureaucratic benefit, brutally crushed the 1989 movement and its intellectual core, which had dared to show independence from the ruling group.

After this, part of the former liberal-conservative layer of scholars accepted the situation with the CCP regime leading the restoration of capitalism. This layer then became accessories of the regime in carrying out neo-liberal policies and attacks on the working masses. This is why currently on the internet in China, many pro-government scholars are called ‘jiaoshou’ (the same pronunciation as ‘professor’ in Chinese, but loosely translated means ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’).

However, Liu and his pan-democratic co-thinkers have remained on the other side of the collapsed ‘bridge’ since then. As a well-known and unrepentant opposition to CCP rule, but also to communist ideology, they have refused to cooperate with the repressive regime. Unfortunately, however, they have also refused to understand the reality in China and the social and political roots of the current state of affairs.

After 20 years of struggle with the regime, Liu and like-minded liberal intellectuals have not discovered the true force of historical change – the working masses. In 1989, they tried to block workers and ordinary citizens from joining the student-led protests, and put their hopes in one wing of the CCP top brass (Zhao Ziyang). They resisted the only measures, such as a call for a workers’ general strike and organisation of democratic defence committees, that could have prevented the regime’s bloody crackdown.

As a part of the elite layer, Liu and his co-thinkers have never really trusted or sought to unite with working people in China, despite their calls for ‘equality and democracy’. They criticise Chinese peoples’ violence and revolutions throughout history, and see private ownership and the market economy as the bedrock for democratic development. "I have always opposed sudden reform taken at one step and, even more, have opposed violent revolution... The order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy". (From the statement Liu Xiaobo was prevented from reading at his trial).

In 1988 Liu Xiaobo was interviewed by a Hong Kong journalist and declared that China would have been better under a colonial system for 300 years, since Hong Kong, under British colonial rule for over a century, had become a ‘free-market’ and a developed economy. This is completely refuted by reality in Hong Kong, where a small handful of pro-CCP tycoons exercise total control over the ‘free market’. It is a well-known saying in Hong Kong that seven cents of every dollar spent goes to Li Ka Shing, Hong Kong’s wealthiest man, because of his economic control over telecoms, media, property, ports and retailing.

Similarly, based on Liu’s thinking, India should be a developed, equal and free society because it was a British colony for nearly 200 years and today is both a capitalist democracy and federal republic – as Charter 08 calls for. However, the reality is the total opposite: India still has the largest population of poor people in the world and is full of social conflicts, class struggle and even civil war in many of its states. With the exception of a minority of privileged capitalist states, most countries with a so-called market system and differing degrees of bourgeois democracy are still mired in social chaos, mass poverty and inequality.

Democracy – where we stand

REPRESSION, CENSORSHIP and thought control by the Chinese regime are often portrayed as ‘traits of socialism’ by liberal dissidents and the overseas capitalist media and governments. This is a deliberate falsehood. It is Stalinism and Maoism, which rested on dictatorial bureaucratic control, that could not tolerate democratic rights or dissent even within their own party. But this has nothing in common with real Marxism and socialism. Genuine socialists, supporters of the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, were the main target of Stalin’s murderous purges and massacres in the 1930s, and were also terribly persecuted by Mao after the 1949 revolution.

Genuine socialists fight to win and defend basic democratic rights including freedom of association, expression, publication, and the right to strike. However, we have a very different view of democracy and human rights from liberals and supporters of capitalism. Socialists do not accept the idealistic view that democracy and human rights are a ‘natural right from heaven’. The democratic rights enjoyed by workers and the middle class in bourgeois democracies were not simply handed down by benevolent rulers, but are a result of consecutive class struggles especially by the working class, from the struggles of trade unions in Britain over a century ago, to the civil rights movement of Afro-Americans in the US. In all capitalist countries, the rulers fought against the right to vote for the poor masses and in particular for women. Furthermore, these rights are never guaranteed, but must be defended again and again by struggle. There are many examples today of ‘democratic’ capitalist governments attempting to roll back democratic rights and limit the influence of the masses over political leaders.

Bourgeois democracy, and the governments it produces, are ultimately controlled by the capitalist class and serve its interests. But as Leon Trotsky explained, the workings of bourgeois democracy are contradictory and can come into conflict with the wishes of the capitalists, because they also open the possibility for the working class to organise itself and fight for socialism. This idea was also expressed by Karl Marx in Capital: "Democracy is the road to Socialism".

This is why socialists fight to defend the democratic rights, limited as these are, that bourgeois democracy allows, against authoritarian methods of capitalist rule. But we also explain that to extend democratic rights and prevent them being eroded or abolished, a new society of democratic socialism is needed. Real socialism would mean the election of all representatives subject to immediate recall and paid only a skilled workers’ wage. It would mean democratic elections also for the boards of companies by the working class, with board members paid only a skilled workers’ wage and subject to recall. All aspects of life, government, economy, public services and culture, would be democratised and opened to all, rather than run by unelected bureaucrats or profiteers as is the case under capitalism.

Significantly, there is never any criticism of the US and its imperialist role in Liu Xiaobo’s statements. Liu and his co-thinkers unconditionally supported the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, and still describe these as "just liberation wars" for the people of the Middle East. Globally, for their own business interests, the capitalist powers and multinationals collude with the CCP regime to exploit Chinese labour and natural resources. This far-reaching collusion includes technical cooperation in censorship of the internet, and in the repression of individual dissidents. The incredible comment of Bill Gates recently that internet censorship in China is "very limited" sums up the profits-come-first attitude of the US and other capitalists. While they cannot state this openly, the capitalists need the state repression against the working class and masses that the one-party dictatorship offers. The reality for hundreds of millions of Chinese who suffer under real capitalism, courtesy of the Chinese regime and western capitalist world, is a million miles removed from the imagined capitalism – ‘fair’ and ‘free’ – that Liu Xiaobo and his co-thinkers yearn for.

Socialists and the supporters of Shehui Zhuyi Zhe (‘Socialist’ magazine) will continue to actively protest the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo and other victims of state repression. We also demand the dropping of the absurd charges against supporters of the Chinese Communist Party (Maoist) and their release from detention. We call for the right of all political groups to organise and openly campaign for their ideas. At the same time, socialists will naturally, in the spirit of democracy, not hesitate to criticise political ideas that do not offer a way forward for the masses. Increased repression in China must be met with massive protests but also with even greater efforts to publicise the socialist alternative.

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