China, socialism and sustainable development: a study tour
by David Matters
In May this year, I attended a two-day conference, “Marxism and Sustainable Development”, took a trip along the Yangtze, visited the Three Gorges Dam and toured Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing, all to study sustainable development.
One reaction to the announced visit to the Three Gorges Dam as part of a sustainable development study said it all. I was met with laughter and incredulity and a view that the Three Gorges Dam was environmental vandalism.
The comments relate to the dislocation of villagers and the flooding of valleys. They play on the fear of dam construction and loss of flows downstream, although most views are centred around the general anti-China sentiment expressed in the Western media.
China is depicted in the Western media and some “left” journals as home to all sorts of attacks on human rights and the environment. There is a sustained Western media campaign to present the country as the home to “communist dictatorship”amidst capitalist plunder.
Primary stage of socialism
Jiang Zemin, in his report to the 15th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, put the view that China is in the primary stage of socialism. This was eleven years ago in 1997. He made the point that it would be in this stage for a very long time. (Beijing Review, October 6-12, 1997)
The primary stage of socialism is an historical stage in which we shall gradually put an end to underdevelopment and realise socialist modernisation by and large. It is a stage in which an agricultural country, where people engaged in agriculture take up a large proportion of the population and mainly rely on manual labour, will gradually turn into an industrial country where non-agricultural people constitute the majority and which embraces modern agriculture and service trade.
He continues with the view of a society developing towards a market-oriented economy.
It is a stage in which by introducing reforms and exploring new ways, we will establish and improve a socialist market economy, a political system of socialist democracy and other systems that are relatively mature and full of vitality. It is a stage in which a great number of people will firmly foster the common ideal of building socialism with Chinese characteristics, and will make unremitting efforts to overcome difficulties, build the country with industry and thrift, and promote cultural and ethical progress as well as material progress. It is a stage in which we will narrow the gap between our level and the advanced world standards and bring about a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on the basis of socialism. It will take at least a century to complete this historical process. It will take a much longer period of time to consolidate and to develop the socialist system, and it will require persistent struggle by many generations, a dozen or even several dozens.
This reality is China today.
It is no secret that China is undergoing the most extensive urbanisation in the history of all humanity. Millions are being housed in new cities and vast acres of housing and industrial tracts are laid out, power stations are coming online every week. When travelling in Beijing, Shanghai or Chongqing or for that matter any city in China the level of development dwarfs the majority of Western cities.
Beijing’s population is 18 million; Shanghai has a similar number and Chongqing 34 million. To provision these cities and to provide a life and food, clothing, water and shelter are monumental tasks. More though is happening under these cities. Vast subways to move people are being built and in some cases already operating. Sewerage systems are built and roads and freeways, though these are accompanied by vast traffic jams and noise and air pollution.
Development is certainly underway and moving rapidly. The cities have parks and green space but not enough to cope with the emissions. The subways are efficient but they need to be with the vast volumes of people moved each day.
If you leave these urban settings and go to the countryside you notice the industry, in that nearly every piece of arable land is under some form of cultivation. China is currently 95 per cent self-sufficient in food. Agriculture has some mechanisation but the overwhelming majority is manual labour, farmers still make up the majority of the population and we are told that surplus labour is in the order of 150 million in the countryside.
We are only seeing the richer areas of China and still the cash economy has not lifted up over 800 million beyond the $2 per day international poverty line.
The reform process in China was opened in the east of the country and this has left the west and north-west of the country lagging in industrial development. It is now a priority of the central government to help these areas catch up. This includes the construction of the Tibet railway to assist the Tibetan people develop their economy and promote tourism. In the north-west the Chinese are encouraging bilateral relations with Russia.
The problems to be tackled are under consumption and modernisation. The pace of change in China is so phenomenal that one year can see vast changes in regions and areas. The raising of farm income and urbanisation are the priorities.
The only part of the world where this absolute poverty level is falling is South-East Asia and this is the result of development in China and Vietnam. All other regions have seen increases in poverty, including an absolute increase in the number of people living on less than $2 per day (see United Nations poverty indexes). All I spoke to supported the view that life was getting better in China and that it had improved since the reforms.
Labour rights reform
In the twelve months since my last trip, there had been a significant reform of labour rights and a new Law on Labour Contracts had passed. This law provides for written labour contracts for all employees and protection of rights at law. The basis rests around the length of the employment engagement and those workers who have been and are to be employed for longer than three years have gained rights to compensation if their contracts are terminated, in the order of four weeks for each year of service.
This caused some angst amongst the employers who organised resistance to the laws, including through a representative in the People’s Congress, who opposed the labour contracts law. I found that the debate and the passing of this law had raised the awareness of those who had witnessed the debate, including shock at the opposition. Unlike on my previous visit, this time I found ordinary citizens who had a better understanding of unions. Even on the cruise ship I found workers with a better understanding of their rights at work.
The labour law is definitely a step in the right direction and is good for establishing closer connections between the People’s Government, the Communist Party and the people. The organisation of the All China Confederation of Unions has improved along with the consciousness of the mass of workers.
It is the first time that many workers have had a written labour contract with rights against dismissal and protections at law have been improved. The national debate has exposed the broader population to these issues.
The economy is a mix of capitalism and socialism with housing a particular point. All land, even farmland, is the property of the state. Land cannot be bought or sold from the people’s state but land use is transferable and has defined rights by law. Land use can be passed on through inheritance or exchange of value and loss of land use is compensated by the state or another body in accordance with the law.
This could best be illustrated on the basis that if a person needs to go to a retirement home this can be arranged by giving back their flat and being provided with what they need. Housing is often subsidised by the company employing a person, as is food, for some employees. Wages are a mixture of cash and goods in kind or subsidies so the real wage for some would be hard to determine. There are health and pension funds for various employees and some other forms of social security. All these seem to be in evolution.
An eight-hour day seems common although from talking to the tour guide it is flexible in some industries of a seasonal nature. Building workers in particular work longer than eight hours. They are mostly migrant workers from the countryside, so work longer to make money to go back home.
Discrimination against migrant workers is rife and the government is talking about measures to fix this. Though the system of migrant workers is reinforced by the old registration system, the open economy has created the ability for illegal movement of workers past the registration system and this has opened extra problems.
Large building sites seem to provide their own accommodation for workers as well as food. This is as well for some as the cost of city dwellings can be out of the reach of many.
The economy is divided into state owned industries, Chinese private owned, foreign Chinese, and foreign multi-nationals. The behaviour of each group of capitalists vary, with the foreign multi-nationals leading the way in labour law violations and resultant worker protests.
The system of government has national, regional and municipal layers. All are people’s governments but the degree of autonomy at the local level is not dissimilar to those in a federated system. Some local governments encourage a high degree of public ownership while others exhibit a bias towards privatisation.
One of the ideological pushes from the West was an influx of liberal economics experts who advocated that the privatisation path was best. Some state owned enterprise directors set the books of the companies to show loss-making enterprises. When the governments allowed management buyouts the firms then began to make good profits, even though they were forced to honour social contracts to workers. This has rightfully aroused suspicion that state owned enterprises properly managed can meet their social obligations and make a profit for the people.
Problems of sustainability
The current President, Hu Jintao has noted that this stage of development has led to problems of sustainability, environmental degradation and disproportionate income; he says this is too high a price to pay and has begun to lead some changes in the economy and society through a change of emphasis.
This emphasis is changing from measures of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person to social issues that affect the well being of the people. He has re-established an emphasis on Marxist research with the foundation of the Chinese Academy of Marxism within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The attitude has been summed up in the fight against corruption and the turn of the party leadership further towards the people. Although at pains to emphasise that this is not new for the Chinese Communist Party, it is still strongly refreshing in a society where many of the youth were seduced by the concepts of Western consumerism and democratic liberalism.
This philosophy is being espoused as the “Beijing Consensus” and is counter posed to the economic liberalist model of the “Washington Consensus”. Hu projects this as a model for developing countries and Vietnam and Laos have certainly began to embrace this consensus.
The battle for socialism is an ideological battle as well as a material battle and inspiration of the mass of people is critical as the people’s government in China rests on support from the different classes that comprise the people. The Communist Party represents that part of society that strives to build socialism.
The health of the Communist Party is of concern for all and there is some mixed news. The party it seems is successfully combating corruption and a reinvigoration of Marxism from life seems to be occurring. The possible downside is how well the party is able, as a ruling party, renew whilst it is under assault from other class forces. The decision to admit some capitalists to the party is one debate that continues, with some older cadre expressing reservations about the wisdom of such a move and whether it will dilute what the party stands for.
The response of the party to the earthquake in Szechuan Province was monumental and the Communist Party was a leading force and it is here that the socialist character of the state has come to the fore.
The mass organisation of the rescue, the mobilisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and all the forces of the state and the use of the media to inform and educate the people about the dangers, all gave them hope for the future.
It was a reflection of the ideological position when both the President and the Premier proclaimed that they would set as first priority the rescue of every single person that it was possible to rescue. This broadcast for the world to see is in contrast to the racial hypocrisy of the United States in Louisiana, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and the inferred statement that the Chinese have so many people they do not value human life.
It is true as the Chinese media have stated that the Western ideologues were struck dumb by the tremendous human spirit displayed by the Chinese people, their government and those millions around the world who reached out, as the Chinese put it, with human hearts filled with love. Overwhelming were the children’s pictures of human sentiment that dominated the public domain.
Those who plot war and hatred such as the US imperialists in their contemptible campaign on “human rights” were answered with a mighty response from millions of humans showing the real meaning is “People First” as one editorial in China Today so correctly said.
That China has housed over 5 million of its citizens left homeless, has counselled thousands of distressed children, averted secondary disasters and diseases and is on the way to helping 10 million of its citizens rebuild their shattered lives, shows the superiority of socialism over capitalism.
US citizens in Louisiana whose shattered lives are still not put back together could swear to this.
Three Gorges Dam
This though is not the end of it for this still developing country of 1.3 billion humans is engaged in much more than this. We heard much about the environmental story of the Three Gorges Dam and so a trip for three days on the Yangtze from Chongqing to Yanking some 500km downstream and just below the dam should give a true picture. Yanking is still an hour and three-quarters plane flight from Shanghai which is near the mouth of the river.
What we found was that the damming of the Yangtze at the three gorges had allowed navigation upstream to Chongqing for commercial barges. We passed many barges carrying about a dozen semi-trailers laden with produce. It is certainly less polluting to carry trucks by barge than for all drivers to be on the national highways. There is access all along the river at ports for cargo and a lifeblood, all-year-round navigation is now possible. Many dangerous reefs on the river are now deeper and out of harms way. At this point the Yangtze was a clean but muddy river and remained so all the way.
Along the banks we saw evidence of re-afforestation, carried out by scattering seeds from helicopters. Apparently the banks had been denuded of trees in the Great Leap Forward era when Mao had thought that little steel mills in everyone’s back yard would bring development. The loss of trees caused landslides and those along the banks were now acutely aware of the role that the trees play.
We met a minority people, the boat trackers, who had provided navigation for the boats on the river at great peril. The tourist industry was a supplement to their income from farming. We passed through the areas of other minorities. On visiting the Shanghai Museum we learnt that there were 55 national minorities recognised and valued as part of the Chinese nation, many with their own autonomous regions with support for the development of their culture and religions. This contrasts with Australia where we are yet to recognise even one of our national minorities.
Farming is a main industry along the Yangtze and behind the banks further inland there is coal mining. At three sites before we reached the three gorges project we came across museums and educational centres explaining the project. Along the Yangtze dozens of bridges had to be replaced, each a major project in itself. More astounding was the relocation, with each person in a household compensated 80,000 Yuan, on average, 400,000 per household. Where a village or town had to be relocated a new dwelling of equal size was provided. A choice could be made for a larger dwelling and most opted for a bigger home. Relocation to major centres was also on offer. One of the tour guides explained her predicament: “My grandmother who is 80 is happy because we don’t have to move, but me I wish our house had been in the relocation zone as then I could have got the money and a relocation job in Shanghai.”
This story was repeated up and down the river. The relocation involved 1.3 million people, more than the whole population of Brisbane. When we got to the dam we found a huge structure which at completion will provide one-ninth of China’s energy needs. With China’s growth though, this will only be for an instant and people’s needs will again outstrip this dam. The dam is nation building as was the Hoover Dam in the U.S. and the Snowy Scheme here in Australia.
Going downstream and there is an opposite story to the relocation. People there have had much valuable land freed from periodic floods, which usually brought tragic loss of human life.
The environmental tragedy we did find was the loss of the White Dolphin, not because of the dam, but a more insidious environmental problem, the plastic bag. The Chinese Government instituted a ban on plastic bags of thin dimensions and a charge on others, a step that was debated in the media as insufficient but lauded for its direction.
The manufacture of plastic bags consumes 37 million barrels of oil each year and this is of equal importance as an environmental consequence of plastic bags. Trillions are consumed each year in China alone.
Development in China is increasingly environmentally friendly with an improved use of technology. We visited a high-tech university at Chongqing, the University of Post and Telecommunications. This university was involved in the development of 4g and 5g communication technologies with mobile phone and other communications. The advanced use of science and communications was evident in the use of satellites to assess the damage and risks in the Szechuan earthquake. We found that even though we were in remote locations on the Yangtze we were always within range of mobile communication.
In Shanghai we found a plant developing electronic cables, which are all sealed with rubber in China to prevent loss of electric charge. Even more fascinating was a plant pioneering electric capacitors.
This plant was working with the Shanghai Municipality to promote a new form of electric trolley buses that only need a charging station to refuel, for example at a bus stop. This technology will be on display at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 and will eliminate diesel emissions in a city that relies heavily on buses for public transport.
Capitalist global dominance
I will comment on one aspect of the tour. Many on the tour reflected a view that China was doing much wrong by moving to the motorcar and by other developments. This view is similar to the one that blames China and India for much of the world’s pollution. This view however, ignores the global dominance of capitalism and imperialism’s dominance over the developing world.
China and India have a right to develop and to end poverty for their people. In fact the pledge of the Chinese Government to reduce per capita greenhouse gases is a very progressive step. We have a responsibility to demand that our capitalist governments do likewise we must demand that transport be more public and less carbon reliant and that development be in the national interest, meaning the interests of the vast majority, not the wealthy minority.
In this the driest Inhabited continent on earth we must have policies that work with nature not against.
Socialism is superior
What I clearly saw in China was that for human development, socialism is superior to capitalism and that measures which put people first are sustainable. In China those forces that because the environmental catastrophes are dictated by the laws of capitalist development, where they are restrained and human interest prevail are where socialist measures are enacted. Socialism is not communism and will bear the features of capitalism for many years, just as in human society regressive cultural and social relics of feudalism persist.
Unlike other social systems socialism and its necessary infrastructure do not burst into existence fully formed, but as an embryo which must be nurtured and developed within the boundaries left by the previous social system. The first revolution is a political revolution which is designed to remove the monopoly bourgeoisie from power. It must then be followed by a series of continuous reforms and innovations to strengthen that political power, primarily by improving the lives of the vast majority. So long as that power is not overthrown by a reactionary force then that reform can continue and be strengthened.
This is behind the efforts of imperialism which wages a continual ideological war to throw the communists off the path of socialist construction. Defence of the Chinese political system through clear thinking and support for the role of the Communist Party in defending the direction of China’s social revolution is important for the peace and well being of all humanity.
China is leading the way in several areas of development of alternatives to fossil fuels. These include massive projects in solar power, wind and other forms of energy generation. The questions of reduction of greenhouse gases and environmental pollution cannot be separated from those of poverty and human development.
China and India are often criticised for their total emissions of greenhouse gases but this measure is not an accurate gauge of their contribution to sustainable development. The real issue is the level of carbon and methane per capita and on this score China is low but more importantly the Chinese Central Government has committed to keeping this low despite China’s enormous development.
The US is the largest emitter in total and per capita but has made no such commitment. Australia is still debating how to shift its burden to the developing world through emissions trading. As the conference concluded, capitalism is not a system that can sustain the future of humanity.