By Thomas Foster
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2913

Explaining the role of China today

Adrian Budd spoke to Socialist Worker to help explain his new book
Issue 2913
A wave of revolt hit Hong Kong over China’s influence (Picture: Studio Incendo on Flickr)

A wave of revolt hit Hong Kong over China’s influence (Picture: Studio Incendo on Flickr)

What is the nature of the Chinese regime?

The key question is who controls the state. It’s not the working class and oppressed groups, which are marginalised in decision-making. There’s no worker democracy to speak of in China.

China is a state whose decision-making is geared towards maximising production output and extracting profit from the 800 million Chinese workers.

These workers don’t get the full fruits of their labour and have no say in the distribution.

Let’s look at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that controls the state. It’s the second biggest party in the world with around 98 million members.

Most adults will know CCP members in their street and in their workplace. It has deep roots but the roots are built for nourishing the party.

Not to make decisions in the interest of all people but to give legitimacy and a sense of power to the party. Many people join in a routine way because it’s a leg up to advance their career.

But the core of decision makers at the top echelons of the party is very small both at the national and regional level.

The core leadership is thousands in number and built around established families like Xi Jinping’s—the current leader of the Chinese state.

But they have unleashed, through reforms that have increased openness to markets, alternative sources of power in the form of private capital.

It’s a dangerous mix—private capital accumulation gives you a social power that can be used for political ends. There’s a huge amount of political control over private capital.

Private capital has been invited in, but it remains second-fiddle to the party-state. And president Xi recognises that private capital is potentially a long-term threat.

That’s in part why there’s been a greater tightening of surveillance and organisational screws on private capital.

The state passed laws in 2016 and 2017 setting up party cells in every company, university and public body to do the work of the CCP.

You describe China as state-orchestrated capitalism—a hybrid regime between state capitalism and neoliberalism—what does that mean?

Under Mao Zedong, who led China from 1949 to 1976, there was a self-reliance drive. There was nearly a complete separation from the world at the productive level, with exports minimal.

But that changed when the Chinese regime introduced reforms that opened up the economy to private business in the 1980s.

When those reforms started, exports were around £700 million a year. Thirty years later, exports are now around £2,500 billion a year.

And state-owned companies contribute only 30 percent of yearly output. Around 96 percent of housing is privately owned. There’s virtually no welfare state.

If you add in outside investment, it’s quite clear that although the state is involved through state-owned enterprises and state-owned banks, private business has grown dramatically.

So China has gone from inward-looking self-reliance to a much greater openness to global flows of capital and commodities. There’s been a shift towards private capital accumulation.

And neoliberalism is referred to in party documents that state, “We are a party of neoliberal economic management.”

But in practice, there is a heavy dose of state intervention in finance and in certain productive areas, as CCP cells still exist at decision-making levels.

There’s still talk that China is a planned economy, but that’s far from the truth.

There is some form of indicative planning where officials say, “We want chemical production to grow by 12 percent this year and metal production to grow by 5 percent.”

But that’s not planning, it’s just hope. In China, it’s planning by edict, but not real substantive economic planning.

All 32 regions in China have their own power base, local authority and ruling class and they compete with one another. So there’s this huge duplication and underutilisation of resources.

Local authorities all want to build motorways and railways but have no overall plan to address whether they’re needed. This means you get considerable underutilisation.

Trains are less than half full and motorways used at less than half their capacity.

What is the structure of the working class and the levels of worker activism in China?

For a start, trade unions are organised by the trade union federation (the equivalent of the Trades Union Congress in Britain), which is an arm of the state.

And the labour market is very restrictive, particularly for migrant workers who have fuelled the Chinese boom on lower rates of pay.

There’s a hukou, or family register system, where people are given geographical residency permits attached to where they are born. If you are born in the countryside, you have rights related to there.

There are 300 million internal migrant workers in China like this. And the level of exploitation for them is dramatic. There is huge despotism in the workplace. You get long working hours and draconian management.

Workers live in substandard dormitories with cheap food. But there was a significant strike wave in China that built from 2007 up to 2015.

It represented an upsurge in unofficial strikes by worker activists that bypassed the official unions, with workers often striking over mass redundancies and unpaid wages.

For example, in 2014 40,000 shoe factory workers struck after finding out that their pension was lower than expected. There were periodic flashpoints of strikes in all sorts of different sectors.

But president Xi attacked it in a variety of ways, firstly attacking labour centres that assisted workers, then banning NGOs that helped workers.

He also reformed the national trade union federation to make it appear more open to influence from below. But in the last two years or so, there’s been a recovery of anger.

In 2020, there was an explosion of organising and strikes among delivery drivers. Angry about low pay, delivery workers organised mutual aid and online chat groups.

In 2023, there was a pick-up in strikes and protests among gig economy workers in the first few months.

What is China’s place within the imperialist system?

China is imperialist not because of some intention, but because it’s a state trapped in a global system of rivalry between states.

An example of its imperialism is its Belt and Road initiative, which delivers infrastructure projects to countries in the Global South.

China hides its imperialism with the rhetoric of that initiative as “win-win” relationship between China and the rest of the Global South, as if its exploitation of other countries doesn’t exist. But that’s a lie.

So China builds a railway in Zambia, Argentina or Kenya or wherever it may be.

China lends the countries the money to pay for its commodities at interest rates above other United States-backed lenders.

If a country forfeits on payment, the Chinese state takes the asset. China is the top dog, and the countries of the Global South are the supplicants.

That is the economic component— an outlet for state-owned enterprises. The geopolitical component is to extend China’s influence in the world.

Essentially it is stuck in a relationship of interdependent rivalry with the West and in particular the US.

China’s export of capital, search for surplus value and geopolitical rivalry with other capitalist countries all adds up to the state being locked into imperialism.

China’s role in the world is definitely on the up, but with one massive caveat. It’s got much weaker tools at its disposal than the US.

The military firepower of the US and its ability to twist the arms of allies and would-be allies puts it at an advantage. China has no Nato alliance equivalent. And that’s true of financial firepower too.

The US controls international financial institutions that are stronger than China’s influence. And the US has a stronger position by having allies all around China.

But China has grandiose rhetoric and may lash out because president Xi’s regime has mobilised nationalism for domestic purposes.

The inter-imperialist rivalry is constantly throwing up flashpoints.

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