During the recent May Day holiday, an editorial in China’s People’s Daily argued that ‘labour is still the dominant factor in China’s social development.’ Other government organs repeated this line, noting that labour’s progress was ultimately down to the unswerving and unstinting support of the Communist Party.
But while the Communist Party has tried to move into a new era by co-opting entrepreneurs and seeking to inspire innovation through science and massive state support to targeted industries and companies, workers are more than simply nostalgic icons—they are a potential flashpoint for the growing divide within the Communist Party.
Among the many accomplishments of Hu Jintao and his like-minded colleagues has been the ability to hold the Party together in tough times while allowing differences of opinion to persist. There’s a good deal of consensus within the Party about the general direction of the country—no one in the Party apparatus wants to see it implode and the nation left leaderless. But there are some significant differences between various groups in the government, a divide that can perhaps best be thought of as based around three broad camps: the Left, the Right, and the Centre.
The Left wing of the Party is the most ideological, hidebound to Maoism, driven in part by nostalgic longings and in part by a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of society. Leftists complain that some elites have robbed society; increased the income gap in the name of economic development; and that the poor are virtually ignored politically. While much of the speech-making remains the province of intellectuals, those who subscribe to these views also have political sponsors, and they advise and are sheltered by them. This passion for Leftism has become part of the political platform of Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of Chongqing. Bo has promoted many policies in the shape of old-style campaigns, meant to inspire the masses and render opposition difficult. And, while Bo insists that he has no yearning to return to the days of the Cultural Revolution, this hasn’t stopped him reviving ‘red songs’ (and singing them with verve, even with visiting members of the Politburo). His is a Leftist populism running hot.
Bo’s law-and-order campaign in Chongqing was also recently folded under the Leftist tent, when a special police squad was reportedly sent in to seize the salaries of unscrupulous bosses at a construction site and to protect workers there from hired thugs. Staged or not, the press coverage of the incident and the comments on numerous Internet forums highlighted the traction that Leftists enjoy in some parts of Chinese society, as well as underscoring the fact that some officials are eager to ride that sentiment. The potential for using those disaffected by China’s special brand of economic progress to wage political battle at the upper-levels—especially using anti-corruption campaigns—is something that appeals to Leftists.
Rightists don’t revel in the plight of workers either. But they prescribe a quite different political potion. For many of them, economic growth has produced the sort of social complexities—inequality and the severing of many strands of the social safety net—that cry out for some sort of political reform. Some on the Chinese Right want to push elections forward and faster, especially in the cities, seeking to enfranchise workers as a means of promoting Party legitimacy. With this in mind, the postponement of a dialogue on political reform appears to be of increasing concern to the Right, at least judging from some of the recent statements of Premier Wen Jiabao.
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.
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.