But the Right wing is also more complicated. Some in this camp are far more circumspect and argue that administrative reform might be the best route, for now at least. Under this view, making better cadres would produce more loyal citizens, especially if the latter feel that the former are in better touch with their needs and the current shortcomings of the system. This is certainly the vision in the Organization Department, and they see legitimacy as their political lodestar. So, as the Left pushes its agenda of social and economic levelling through mass action and ideological inspiration, those on the Communist Right seek simply to be more creative in shaping a better cohort of cadres who with empathize with labourers, and also act on behalf of the moneyed and propertied classes.
Sitting astride it all is the Centre, run by President Hu Jintao. Yet while Hu and his allies have made substantial progress in ‘putting people first’ and looking to reinstall some elements of socialism—health care reform, income subsidies, lower tax rates for the poor—the forces he and his associates have fashioned to run the country have actually been relatively hard-line. They are re-centralizers, brought to Beijing years ago to strengthen the hand of the Party over the provinces. Barely bridled economic growth, environmental degradation, local corruption, social and ethnic outrage—these problems are seen by the Centre as having been produced in the provinces, and only able to be solved through Beijing. So, too, the crackdowns on channels of dissent, designed to prevent political options from coming to the fore and therefore attracting the disaffected.
All this means that while there’s certainly upper-level sympathy and support for labour in the current leadership, it’s mostly within the boundaries of the existing trade union structure. More than a few officials want reform of the trade unions, but not replacement. Likewise, the slogans of ‘harmonious society’ and ‘scientific development’ reflect the view at the political Centre that only if labour contributes to both of these ventures will it continue to merit provision and policy attention. With few recent exceptions—the wildcat strikes in the auto industry in south China last year, and in Shanghai a few weeks back—both sides have upheld the bargain; disquiet and unhappiness has stayed local.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But suppose that compact is severed? Never mind the long-term implications of an aging and more expensive workforce. What happens if inflation begins to really bite at the same time that economic growth starts to become sluggish?
Officials here are rightly anxious over the consequences of making China more modern and moving beyond the old. Leaders recognize that labour still matters in China, both in managing the economy and sorting out who gets to steer China politically. It’s important therefore to be watchful not only of the Chinese street, but also efforts to use any worker discontent in the larger political tussle already unfolding.
Russell Leigh Moses is Academic Dean at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies and resident political commentator at The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog.