Over 12,000 people marched against a polluting chemical plant through Dalian city in north east China last month—and officials shut it down.
This was the city’s biggest protest since the mass movement in 1989. It follows a number of other high-profile strikes, protests and riots across the country in recent months.
As someone posted on the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, “China has worse riots than Britain every week.”
More than 90,000 such “incidents” happened in 2009, according to official figures. There were almost certainly even more in 2010.
Most target local officials rather than the central government.
But they reveal a growing anger over corrupt officials, environmental damage, police violence, oppression of national minorities and many other issues.
Most of these protests have achieved at least some of their demands.
In this atmosphere, the prospects for the growth of an authentic left should be very good.
There are great opportunities to be taken, even though political repression remains severe. And it is important not to underestimate the dangers from the state.
Small groups of political activists operate in many Chinese cities. Some focus on issues of workers’ rights, or environmental questions. Many look for a return to Maoism, the state’s old ruling ideology, which spoke of equality.
Most of these groups are limited in scope both politically and geographically. At the moment there is no organisation that can knit together all the diverse strands of opposition.
How would such a left organise? From Britain it’s impossible to offer a blueprint, but there are certain basic principles which would help to shape a real socialist alternative.
Any such organisation would have to be clear about the system.
Corrupt officials flourish because the combination of state control of the economy and market principles encourage them.
“To get rich is glorious” was the principle behind the boom of the 1990s.
But the precondition for some to get rich is that many get poor.
It’s not simply local officials that are corrupt, but the system as a whole.
Second, those who oppose China’s rulers and hope to return to an idealised Maoist past weaken their own fight.
The Chinese revolution of 1949 was nationalist, rather than socialist, and Maoism represented a particular form of “state capitalism”.
Workers and peasants weren’t central to the revolution and they never ran society.
Instead, the Communist Party acted as a ruling class. A strong central state was created.
That’s why, when factories or other assets are privatised, it is almost always the old “communist” management who end up as the new owners.
Third, any successful challenge to the state will have to address the contradictory nature of Chinese nationalism.
Nationalism is one of the few things that ties workers and peasants to their rulers.
But the people responsible for poverty and inequality in China today are China’s rulers, not foreign imperialists.
Similarly, Chinese workers are equally exploited—whether the factory owners are Chinese or foreign.
In Tibet, Xinjiang and elsewhere, workers of all nationalities need to unite. And real unity has to be based on the recognition of oppression.
Most of all, experience shows that the most effective resistance is based on working class struggle.
It is the working class that has the economic power to challenge capitalism at its roots. It also has the collective ability to draw other exploited and oppressed groups into the struggle against the system.
That power was seen in embryo in the strikes of 2010, when migrant auto-workers from many different parts of China united together.
Those strikes won substantial immediate gains, but also raised the possibility of independent workers’ organisation.
China’s workers first showed this was possible when they rose up in 1927. Tragically their revolution was betrayed by leaders who did not believe the working class was strong enough to lead.
They were wrong then and the working class today is far larger and more powerful.
Building a real socialist opposition will be far from easy, but the possibilities are immense.