China: class struggle about to enter a new, more volatile chapter

Frederick L 18 December 2023

The year 2023 is coming to an end. This year was by no means a good one for the working class in China. However, it has also been a year in which we’ve seen new hopes springing up as workers have moved towards class struggle.

In the past year, China has witnessed the titanic struggle against lockdowns at the end of last year, the brutal factional infighting among the top bureaucrats of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, confusion and agony for countless young people who face unemployment after graduation, and the lingering effects of the real estate bubble.

On top of all this, China’s economy continues to grind towards a halt, the cost of which the bosses are attempting to transfer to the workers. The glittering mask that Chinese capitalism has been wearing for decades fell this year. No lies about “socialism with Chinese characteristics” can deceive Chinese workers anymore. And in the second half of 2023, we have seen the rising class struggle of the workers’ movement reach its highest point in the past five years.

The Chinese working class is recognising its own power and is preparing to come to the fore. 2023 clearly shows that this moment is approaching.

A year of growing social tensions
As the Chinese New Year approaches, there is less joy in the occasion than usual. Not only do most have to face New Year's Eve without a holiday, but the televised New Year's Gala is becoming appreciably more boring each year.

What is more, for many workers this is the peak season for non-payment of wages and factory closures, in which they will have to fight against employers and the government just to get their meagre wages. There is no way for the bourgeois bureaucrats of the CCP to hide this conflict.

Even the Chinese New Year’s Gala reflects the malaise in society, with the state-produced programme’s sketches ordering the masses to “Get married, have babies and buy a house,” reflecting the bureaucracy’s anxiety that “not getting married”, “not buying a house”, “lying flat” have become the norm across society. These ‘choices’ that working-class young people are taking, so at odds with the urgings of the CCP, reflect the realities of their lives in the face of high costs of living and poor working environment.

A year of continued economic downturn and worker struggles
The root cause of the aforementioned social conflicts in China comes from the fact that this is a capitalist society. When the economy was booming, workers could still put up with the problems thanks to rising wages, but once the economy goes down, workers have to deal with endless unemployment, unpaid wages, and a rising cost of living, while problems such as high property prices, already a constant headache, have reached a new pitch. And what about China’s economy now? As the Chinese capitalist class itself is realising, every year after 2019 will probably be the worst of the last decade, but the best of the next, 2023 being no exception.

Economic crisis is inevitable under capitalism, and even the strongest Party Central Committee can’t stop its objective laws of motion. The three horses that once drew the carriage of the Chinese economy – investment, consumption and exports – have all weakened. This year’s debt crisis following the collapse of BGN and Evergrande, and the fact that China’s national debt already accounts for 230 percent of the country’s GDP, all augur the inevitable bursting of China’s real estate and debt bubbles.

Faced with the economic downturn, companies and institutions have chosen to make workers pay, through dismissals, unpaid wages, etc., leading to fierce resistance. From August this year, we’ve seen a massive increase in collective action by workers (most being wage claims), with 226 recorded nationwide in October alone.

The most militant layers in these strikes have been the traditionally conservative workers of state-owned enterprises (SOE) and institutions, precisely because local governments, deeply burdened by debt, have imposed austerity policies on these enterprises and institutions, cutting and defaulting on the wages and benefits of workers. In the face of unforgiving economic realities, even SOE workers are rapidly becoming radicalised.

As the Marxist theoretician Ted Grant once said: “Not a wheel turns, not a phone rings, not a light bulb shines without the kind permission of the working class!” In the struggles of the past few months, certain sections of the workers have shown the power they hold. For example, earlier this month sanitation workers in the city of Wafangdian in Dalian went on strike over unpaid wages from the city government. The city was instantly covered in rubbish, showing how important these sanitation workers, who work quietly on a daily basis, actually are.

The current trend of struggles spreading over unpaid wages is quite indicative. Admittedly, wage theft is not new in capitalist China. Unpaid wages have been a fairly common capitalist evil since the beginning of the Reform and Opening era. However, in the past, when there was economic growth, wage theft was merely an attempt to maximise exploitation by some capitalists that were already making a killing.

But the wave of wage arrears that has come in this year, across both private and state-owned enterprises, and across a wide range of industries, shows that the economic crisis, starting with the Evergrande property crash, has spread to other sectors of the economy and is directly affecting the working class. Unpaid wages are the result of genuine difficulties faced by these businesses. Of course, we have no sympathy for the bosses and bureaucrats. Quite the contrary, we would point out that the situation today is rock solid evidence that they are no longer fit to rule society.

All this explains, and itself contributes to, the gradual awakening of working class consciousness in China. At the same time, in the course of the struggle, the workers spontaneously united to form embryonic trade unions and rapidly gained experience. Workers would come to realise in the labour movement that only if the working class organised itself could it defend its interests.

Prepare for intensified class struggle!
Standing at the end of the year and looking back, 2023 can be considered a high water mark, and a turning point for the Chinese labour movement. But the question is where the Chinese working class will go next.

As the experience of workers’ struggles accumulates, and as the endurance of the masses gradually approaches its limit, more and more workers will come to realise the need to move beyond independent, small-scale movements, detached from politics, focussing on purely economic questions. The need will be posed for a centralised, larger-scale workers' movement, which will connect these local struggles to the overall political interests of the working class. And this will go hand in hand with the coming huge crisis of China's capitalist market economy.

We believe that a qualitative shift, marked by political radicalisation of class consciousness, is likely to come in the near future. One only has to observe the current sharpness of the social contradictions in China to realise this. Not only is the proletariat unable to get by on account of unemployment, wage cuts and inflation, but the bourgeoisie and the state bureaucrats themselves can no longer stand the economic crises and social contradictions inherent in capitalism!

The series of internal struggles and purges of top Communist Party bureaucrats and the panic of the bourgeoisie in the face of the economic crisis are symptoms of all this. As Lenin explained, the preconditions of a revolution include it both being “impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change” and “the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual”. In China, both conditions are ripening irreversibly.

In the face of the economic crisis and social contradictions, the ruling class in China has demonstrated their absolute impotence and their reactionary character. Only a socialist revolution of the toiling masses, only the socialisation of the means of production under workers’ control can really solve the problem! The contradictions in society are becoming more and more intense and have reached such a sharp point that the class struggle in China is bound to enter a new and more volatile chapter!


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