Book Review: Class in Contemporary China
In 1957, Chairman Mao stated, "Class struggle is by no means over...The proletariat seeks to transform the world according to its own world outlook, and so does the bourgeoisie. In this respect, the question of which class will win out, socialism or capitalism, is not really settled."
60 years later in 2017, Mao's statement holds true for China with many concluding that capitalism has won out. University of Sydney academic David Goodman's book Class In Contemporary China definitely supports the view that there is a ruling bureaucrat capitalist class in China. However he provides enough evidence in his book to suggest that he calls "the subordinate classes" are so many in numbers and so exploited that "the question of which class will win out" as Mao put it, is by no means over, done and dusted.
Goodman's book is full of useful information about the changing class composition and resultant class struggle in China today.
Using both external and Chinese government sources he provides a breakdown of the changes in occupation in China between 1988 and 2006. Some of the changes are significant changes in class composition during this period of expanding so-called "market socialism".
Individual business owners increased from 3.1% of the workforce to 9.5%. Office workers from 1.7% to 7%. Industrial workers declined from 22.4% to 14.7% and agricultural labourers from 55.8% to 40.3%. Commercial services workers and professional and technical workers increased in the same period from 11.2 % of the workforce to 16.4%.
Where do all these people actually work?
By 2013 there were still 110,000 State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in various stages of being corporatised or sold off to private business. The exception has been the 117 most strategically important to the government being owned by the Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.
10.59 million large and medium sized enterprises and 39.85 million small scale businesses providing 60% of China's GDP existed.
However, Goodman argues that this break down between SOEs and the private capitalist entities is blurred as 25% of private enterprises are part owned or fully owned by SOEs.
In 2013 within these enterprises there were 212 billionaires in US$ terms and 1.2 million millionaires, 20 % of whom were professional investors and 15% real estate investors. In 2006, the Organisation Department of the Communist Party reported that 90% of millionaires in 2006 were children of high ranking officials.
Within the ownership and management of these enterprises there has been increasing links both direct and indirect with the ruling Party cadres at both local and central level. Their influence on the direction of the Party is reflected in the resolution of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007 which saw private business change from an "important component" of the national economy to one which the Party pledged to "unswervingly encourage, support and guide the development of the 'non-public sector'”.
How have these changes manifested themselves within the industrial working class, and agricultural labourers?
According to Goodman, in 2011, 60% of urban and 80% of rural industrial and agricultural labourers were in the "informal economy".
What does "informal economy" mean for these workers?
No protection of state labour laws, no job security, lower pay, casualisation, no retirement benefits, no workers compensation. In fact worse off than labour hire workers in Australia.
In 2011 these rural workers represented 53% (405.6 million) of the total working population, while in the urban areas these informal economy workers (218.2 million) represented 28.6% of the working population of China.
Some of these workers are migrant workers from rural areas looking for work in the cities, both in the private sector and even within what is still nominally an SOE.
The minority of the working class in China now is what Goodman calls 'regular workers" with secure jobs and reasonably regulated pay and conditions. These regular workers during the period 1988 and the present day are a declining proportion of the working class due to privatising of SOEs.
Finger In The Dyke
The ruling Communist Party is aware according to Goodman that the increasing number of strikes, peasant association revivals and community protests is the price it is paying for allowing the country to become increasingly out of control due to capitalist sector strength in the economy. One of the few things holding back a torrent of unrest and perhaps revolution is that the millions of peasants who alternate between work on the land and seeking work in the cities still have land use right in their villages to fall back on. However even this is increasingly threatened by developers and corrupt officials who redefine land use to suit their capital needs.
The Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has been forced to do something against corruption to quell the rising tide of unrest from the informal economy sector of workers and peasants.
Abandonment of the peasants' land right use would give them nothing to fall back on and risk a rebellion on a large scale. So the leaders have to live with relatively low productivity rates in agriculture and hold off the calls of the wealthy capitalist interests to "open up" large scale agriculture to huge agriculture conglomerates that we are familiar with here.
So while Chinese leaders have a big say on the world stage now, they need to take heed of Mao's 1957 assessment of the on-going presence of class struggle and which class rules. For in China classes and class struggle are very much alive for the majority of the working population.
As Yan Hairong (quoted by Goodman) said in 2008, "Class as a spectre exists between absence and presence".