Fellows meeting 2006
The Economics of China Today
Presenter: Chaohua Wang
This session discussed the dynamics and prospects of China’s “economic miracle”, its impact upon developing countries and, in the wake of climate change, its potential consequences for the whole planet. In some ways, China’s growth can be compared to that of Victorian England in its oversupply of goods and its relentless global search for raw materials to fuel growth. However, the speed of China’s growth, its reliance on low costs rather than productivity, and the fact that its economic rise is not backed by political and military domination differentiates China from the British Empire. The context of environmental meltdown also means that a 19th century-style industrialisation would be a dangerous road to 21st century development.
The consequences of uneven development and limited attention to environmental issues can be seen in the rise of rural unrest, land expropriations, a dangerous rise in bad lending, growing wealth polarisation and a collapse in social welfare. The Chinese government is yet to fully face up to its global responsibility for a model based on low wages and environmental damage.
Political debates in China Today
Presenter: Zhaotian He
2005 marked the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cultural Revolution and the start of reform processes in China, but how are we to understand the currents of thinking and debate amongst Chinese intellectuals now? 1989 marked a clear turning point, leading to a strong rejection of Communist Party and state rule on the one hand, and suspicion of social movements based on idealism on the other. However, this prompted an uncritical idolisation of the market, a failure to analyse possible alternatives, insensitivity to issues of equality and social justice, and a lack of meaningful engagement with international debates such as those on Iraq or Palestine.
A new left that is critical of neoliberalism is starting to emerge, but it is yet to truly challenge or influence the state in developing a substantive policy of redistribution, or shift its emphasis away from the current model of economic developmentalism.
The relationship between state, society and the global economy is key to this whole debate. The current economic model allies state repression with multinational power to keep wages low. The commodification of everyday life has increased the power of money in society, but has also resulted in counter-effects like the rise of religious groups such as the Falun Gong.
The myth behind China’s miracle and emergence of alternative voices:
Social movements in China Today
Presenter: Dale Jiajun Wen
The myth of China’s “economic miracle” is that it is creating manufacturing jobs and increasing wages, but the reality is that manufacturing jobs decreased 15 per cent from 98 million to 83 million between 1995 and 2002.Sweatshops have become the norm, average salaries are falling and public services have declined. China is going for a “bigger is better” model and the rural populations, in particular, are suffering the consequences.
A number of movements are articulating alternatives to this situation: the Rural Reconstruction movement, which links students from more than 100 universities with peasants; an environmental movement consisting of more than 2000 NGOs; labour movements; and the New Left, a largely nationalist movement against excessive foreign control.
These movements have changed the government’s rhetoric but their impact on its practice is so far limited to a few band-aid measures. The movements’ limitations raise questions about redesigning and rethinking the state, a major concern for many left movements worldwide. These are particularly difficult issues in China, with its repressive state institutions, the state’s cooption by international capital at the national level, and a vacuum of state power at the local level, which is now often occupied by mafias and organised crime.
Energy and environment
Presenter: Eva Sternfeld
China’s carbon dioxide emissions per person are still a quarter of those in the US, but the gap is closing rapidly. Energy consumption has increased by more than 70 per cent since 1990. China’s growth is highly dependent on fossil fuels (67 per cent coal, 22 per cent crude oil) with the building of 500 coal-fired power plants planned in the next decade. Although the government is investing more in renewable energies, which it hopes will reach 12 percent of total production by 2020, this relatively small proportion is outweighed by overall increases in the country’s energy use, and is in any case dependent upon an expansion of nuclear energy, whose potential costs in terms of contamination and storage are rarely questioned in China.
Climate change is already having an impact in China with shrinking glaciers, increased flooding, and a higher frequency of sandstorms in North China. However, the popular belief remains that technical solutions will resolve the crisis, and there is resistance to taking measures that curtail economic growth and enhanced competition with the US. There is also little consciousness of energy efficiency, in part as a legacy of the free provision of water and heating. Whether or not the rising ecological crises prompt a significant shift in thinking in China remains an open question.
Presenter: Dongfang Han
Official information about labour conditions in China is very unreliable, but the picture painted by various reports from the ground suggests that communist-style government and capitalist working practices have led to the worst possible scenario for labour. There are numerous cases from across the country of local protests in response to companies failing to pay workers or paying pitiful wages. Protests against unhealthy and dangerous working conditions are also widespread.
The Chinese authorities oppose independent union organising. The official labour movement is only seen as a tool to secure power, and there is fear of the Solidarnösc example in Poland. Multinational companies exploit the lack of union organising to prevent effective monitoring of their suppliers, and have opposed laws affecting investments. Repression has helped China to maintain its competitive advantage of low wages, while the threat of China is invoked throughout Asia and worldwide to keep wages low.
The key question is how best to organise. Working within the Chinese system to push for the application of existing laws and codes of conduct may help in certain cases. Sometimes it is the only pragmatic course of action, but doubts were expressed over whether this can ultimately help to build the kind of broad social movement unionism needed to raise wages and social welfare standards not just in China but worldwide.
China’s Global impact
This wide-ranging debate addressed various aspects of the outlook for China and its impact on the global political economy. Several participants struck a pessimistic tone, reflecting the severe challenges posed by China in terms of the race to the bottom on labour, environmental disasters, its growing debt crisis, capital flight, and a crisis in ideology. China’s potent mix of economic and military power without democracy means that it lacks global responsibility, and we should not look to China for meaningful opposition to the US empire.
Up to now, China’s actions in Africa and its role in international forums such as the UN or G33 have confirmed its largely passive or negative impact. At the same time, several participants felt that it was important not to view China as a single block, as its direction is still not clearly fixed. There are signs of openings within government and Chinese civil society which could respond to engagement. There remains a clear need for the better distribution of information and alternatives within China, and for a more nuanced analysis of China’s situation as a whole.