What is Happening in China?

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Chinese Revolution of 1944-49 was the greatest advance in history. A quarter of the world’s people threw off the yoke of imperialism, of landlords and capitalists, and advanced into the modern age. But there was an important difference in the way these two revolutions took place.

In Russia, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party, the working class took power at the head of the peasantry and established a regime of workers’ democracy in October 1917. The landlords and capitalists were overthrown, but to transform backward Russia to socialism – to a society of prosperity, freedom and equality for all – it needed to be linked to revolution in the industrialised west.

However, the European revolutions of that time failed. Soviet Russia was isolated , and ravaged by invasion and civil war. Out of this arose a bureaucratic dictatorship, headed by Stalin, which strangled all that remained of workers’ democracy after Lenin’s death, and mercilessly imprisoned and slaughtered the Bolshevik Left Opposition, which Trotsky valiantly led.

Stalinism based itself not on capitalism, but on state ownership – on a system of nationalised property and planning which the workers’ revolution had made possible. Stalinism claimed to be “socialism”, but suppressed all freedom and built up enormous privileges for the bureaucracy while it developed industry enormously at the same time.

It is the crisis of this bureaucratic system which has now burst into open conflict in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – and which has given rise to Gorbachev and his reforms intended to save the bureaucracy from overthrow at the hands of the working class.

A sophisticated industrialised economy is incompatible with bureaucratic rule. A modern planned economy needs democratic decision-making and control just as the human body needs oxygen. The bureaucracy cannot give up its power, however, and is split between those who want to reintroduce the capitalist market, and those who demand the old rigid centralisation and control.

Although as yet without clear ideas and goals, it is towards workers’ democracy, i.e. towards a democratic socialist order of society that the mass of the people are striving.

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China too, has a long revolutionary history. The workers’ revolution of 1925-27 was defeated and butchered, mainly because of the disastrous policies of Stalin who made the Chinese Communists submit to the capitalist Chiang Kai-Shek.

Following this defeat, Mao rebuilt the Communist Party not on the basis of the working class but on the basis of a peasant war. The victory in 1949 was the victory of a peasant army. The working class, unlike in Russia, never held power in China. The regime of Mao was built on the same lines as Stalin’s dictatorship – although the two bureaucracies, pursuing rival national interests in the world, soon became bitter enemies.

Despite their different origins, however, Chinese and Russian Stalinism have come to face essentially the same crisis – a crisis of bureaucratic rule – and are threatened with overthrow at the hands of the working masses who hate bureaucratic privilege and tyranny. The events in China in May-June 1989, recounted in this pamphlet, mark the beginning of the political epoch of political revolution in China.

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Nationalisation and the planned economy have had enormously beneficial effects for the people of China. Starvation has been eliminated and industry has developed on a scale unparalleled in the capitalist ex-colonial world.

In 1952 China produced 1.8 million tonnes of steel; in 1985 it produced 46 million tonnes. In 1952 it produced 7.3 billion kilowatts of electricity; in 1985 it produced 410 billion kilowatts.

Average life expectancy was less than 40 years at the time of the 1949 revolution, but by 1981 had risen to 66 years for men and 69 years for women.

Whilst the Chinese bureaucracy is not yet an absolute fetter on the development of production and society, in the way that the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy has become, it has still held back the progress of the planned economy. This was most marked in the period of Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when extreme centralisation, attempts to develop Chinese society in isolation from the world economy (autarky) and the destruction of productive forces, led to stagnation.

After the death of Mao, Deng brought in reforms. Decollectivisation, and the introduction of market forces to the distribution of foodstuffs, initially increased grain production by 25%. Gross output during 1978-85 exceeded the total for the previous 21 years. Per capita income in rural areas grew by 17%.

However, Deng’s policy of incentives for private entrepreneurs – “to get rich is glorious!” – has led to big problems. There has been a switch away from grain production towards more profitable crops. No longer self-sufficient in food, China is having to import millions of tonnes of grain from the west.

At the same time, decollectivisation resulted in social polarisation and 120 million peasants being made redundant. 70 million of these were re-employed in rural industry organised in “specialised households” which produce 40% of gross value of rural output. But 50 million became unemployed “wandering people”.

In the towns, food prices have rocketed. Inflation in urban areas in 1988 was officially 21% but unofficial figures are as high as 35%. Workers, especially those moving from rural areas, are facing increased exploitation in the private industries which have grown up, owned by foreign companies, and by a new breed of Chinese millionaires.

Integration with the capitalist world market has temporarily stimulated growth (industrial production grew by 18% in 1988), but has also led to a trade deficit of $7.7 billion and a foreign debt of $40 billion. As the bureaucracy struggled to control these problems, and counteract the overheating of the economy, industrial production plummeted by 11% in the first half of 1989.

These problems, along with the enormous waste caused by corruption and mismanagement, caused a paralysing division within the bureaucracy over economic strategy.

The reform wing of the bureaucracy, led by Zhao, argued that the reforms, which had been restricted to agriculture and the service and light industries, should be extended to basic industries such as steel and energy production, and accompanied with further drastic attacks on workers’ living standards. The conservative wing of the bureaucracy argued that the reforms had gone too far and there should be a return to centralisation in both industry and agriculture.

The dramatic account of Steve Jolly of the events in Tiananmen Square show the speed with which the forces of the political revolution, as yet barely developed, burst through the fissure created by the division in the bureaucracy itself.

Now the movement has been brutally crushed. A new dark night of Stalinist tyranny seems to be descending. It might take a period of years before once again a movement on the scale of these events breaks out in China. Nevertheless, there is no way the bureaucracy can solve the crisis at the root of its system of rule. The contradictions will develop and inevitably burst to the surface. The political revolution has begun.

June 1989