Overcoming mythologies: An interview on the Chuang project

Overcoming mythologies: An interview on the Chuang project

Lorenzo Fe from GlobalProject.info asked us a few questions in response to “No Way Forward, No Way Back,” the preview article from the forthcoming first issue of our journal. Below are our answers. The Italian translation will be posted on GlobalProject.info.

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LFe: First of all, could you explain why did you decide to start the Chuang project and what is it about? How do you understand the global significance of the social processes currently taking place in China?

Chuang: A couple of the founders of Chuang have been doing independent research, translation, writing and event organizing about China since the early 2000s. An earlier collective we had been involved with dissolved due to a combination of political differences and the pursuit of academic careers by some of its members. We gradually met other people interested in China through broader anti-capitalist circles, and in 2013 we gathered to discuss trends in China and ideas for working together. Several from that gathering started an English blog on an existing website, and some began writing for Chinese platforms. In order to establish a more distinct and coherent presence among English discussions of China, a few of us eventually decided to set up our own website (Chuangcn.org) and begin preparing a print journal.

The idea of putting extra effort into a journal was partly inspired by our experience that people are more likely to sit down and read long, in-depth texts if they are in printed form, and they are more likely to pick them up in the first place and take them seriously if both content and form are prepared carefully. This has been our experience with journals such as Endnotes, Sic and Kosmoprolet for example: most of the people we know who’ve actually read them did so in print form. Of course, we (like the editors of those journals) want our texts to be as widely accessible as possible, so we’ll also post them on the website.

Regarding our approach to researching and analyzing processes in China and their global significance, this is summed up in the preface to the forthcoming first issue of the journal:

Chuang is a collective of communists who consider the “China question” to be of central relevance to the contradictions of the world’s economic system and the potentials for its overcoming. […] As a lynchpin in global production networks, Chinese crises threaten the capitalist system in a way that crises elsewhere do not. A bottoming-out in China would signal a truly systemic crisis in which the overcoming of capitalism may again become the horizon of popular struggles. […]

[O]ur goal is to formulate a body of clear-headed theory capable of understanding contemporary China and its potential trajectories. In this first issue, we outline our basic conceptual framework and illustrate the current state of class conflict in China. We also include translated reports and interviews with the proletarians engaged in these struggles, pairing our theory with primary sources drawn from class dynamics that might otherwise remain abstract. […]

The history we review […] is not intended to revive old, internecine battles within the left, nor to engage in a game of historical reenactment in which we map out our political direction according to a set of coordinates long ago rendered obsolete. Instead, we hope that our economic history of China can give some insight into contemporary conflicts in the region, illuminating both the inheritance of the socialist developmental regime and the unique limits to any emancipatory project that arises in the world’s largest nation and second-largest capitalist economy, which remains under the control of a regime that still claims a commitment to communism. […]

 

LFe: If the percentage of workers engaged in productive activities is shrinking, it nonetheless seems that in China an increasing share of the population has been drawn into the wage relation (in both productive and unproductive employment). The relative shrinking of the Chinese reserve army of labour explains quite nicely the impressive rise in strikes and wages that China saw in the last years. Isn’t there a tension between this evidence and your claim that wage demands and associated forms of struggle are of secondary importance compared to riots? Isn’t the absence of a coordinated labour movement more easily explainable with state repression and the legal monopoly of workers’ representation by the state-controlled trade union, rather than with the “illegitimacy of wage demands” – since such wage demands are nonetheless actually there? And if the high level of state repression is also explained by the small room for further wage concessions (given low profitability), isn’t this a further proof that wage demands are of critical importance?

Chuang: First, it’s important to piece apart a few of the terms involved in the question above. While it’s true that the percentage of workers employed in productive activities (particularly manufacturing) is shrinking and more people are being made dependent on the wage, this is not the same as the shrinking of the reserve army of labor. This is because the historic “peasantry” is not a reserve army, though it is ultimately proletarianized — the reserve army is defined by the existence of people dependent on the wage who have no access to work and therefore help to drive down wages for those who are working, since there is an army of able unemployed who need jobs for their own subsistence. The historic peasantry, even in its socialist-era form, was not dependent on the wage and therefore did not exert the same kind of downward pressure on wages until there was some means to sever people from alternative forms of subsistence. The first issue of our journal includes an article covering how this process took place in China and how that changed the nature of the “peasantry,” essentially proletarianizing them. This “frees” a previously un-waged population from the land (or other forms of non-waged subsistence) and funnels them into the waged economy. After this has taken place, however, we actually don’t see a general “shrinkage” of the reserve army of labor in China. This may have been true in the early or mid-2000s, but not today. If anything, now that economic growth is clearly slowing, there will be fewer industries capable of employing these masses of new proletarians. Traditionally over-productive sectors such as steel, coal, construction, etc. are now feeling these constraints, and will likely engage in mass layoffs over the next few years. Many other factories were already shut down in 2008-2009, and many places, such as Dongguan, still have not recovered from that. The reserve army of labor is today growing as part of a general growth of the surplus population–of which the reserve army of labor is only one fraction.

With this in mind, it’s actually unclear that you could connect some shrinkage in the reserve army of labor with the rise in wages since the reserve army didn’t shrink. There is a labor shortage, it’s true, but this has as much to do with basic demographic trends, the increasing productivity of certain industries, and the capitalist transformation of the countryside. It also has to do with the fact that certain regions never recovered from the factory closures of 2008 and the outflow of both capital and migrants that came with it. This is the paradox of a “migrant labor shortage amidst rural labor supply abundance.”1

Secondly, we don’t actually claim that strikes or wage demands are of secondary importance when compared to riots. In fact, the two are very frequently combined. We simply point out that riots actually appear to be more common, and that they tend to draw in broader swaths of the population, as opposed to very specific struggles aimed at particular types of negotiation over the wage. But even these demand-based strikes don’t really have the character of traditional workers’ movements, as many migrants don’t even expect to be working at these places for very long into the future. There is little incentive for workers to build institutions that could carry out fundamental restructurings in the enterprise, or plan for some revolutionary take-over of production, because there is little identification between the work and one’s own life — very different from the kind of “lifetime” job one might be looking for in the auto factories of mid-20th-century Detroit, for example. So these demands in China often take the form of something like looting, where there is a take-whatever-you-can-get mentality. A window opens in which it becomes possible to obtain back wages, holiday bonuses, unpaid benefits, or simply to get back at managers who had sexually harassed workers, owners who had hired thugs to beat up workers who stand up for themselves, etc. and workers jump on this opportunity, but often they just take the money and leave. These activities are becoming more collective, but they still exhibit far more similarity with contemporary strikes and riots in other countries than people generally assume.

Thirdly, the “illegitimacy” of wage demands doesn’t mean that wage demands don’t exist or are not common. We borrow the term from a French group, Théorie Communiste, and it’s admittedly not the best term (they are pretty fond of arcane prose). Basically the wage demand being “illegitimate” means that, at the global level, profitability is so limited that capital cannot afford an increase in the global wage floor. This is an oversimplification, and it has a number of other consequences (inflation, currency turbulence, sovereign debt crises, etc.), but the form it takes in China is one where the wage itself becomes a central point of contention, and the increases in this wage result in the relocation of factories inland or overseas, or intensified automation. We see all of these things in places like the Pearl River Delta, and the strikes in workplaces are actually more commonly strikes over lump payments or benefits, undertaken by workers who have no expectation that they will remain in the factory or that the factory will remain in the area. Many recent strikes have been aimed at the payment of back-wages by factories preparing to relocate. Workers initiated these strikes because it was their last chance to try to obtain this cash with few risks, since they were losing their jobs anyway.

So wage demands are of critical importance—just not in the way that they were for the historic workers’ movements in Europe and America. The key difference is that today’s wage demands can’t result in the creation, even for a few decades, of a high-paying blue-collar sector. Any organization that forms with this intent, or with similar presumptions, is making a strategic mistake. These global conditions basically destroy the environment in which the historical workers’ movement developed, so it’s unlikely that that movement’s strategies would work today–whether this be modern variants of the liberal socialist “New Deal” platform of high-wage job creation, or the Erfurt program, or the syndicalist general strike, not to mention revolutions led by millions of armed peasants. All take as their base the existence of expanding employment in large-scale productive enterprises and the influx of peasants-becoming-workers from a large non-capitalist frontier. These conditions form the basis of liberal redistributionist campaigns, mass parties, extensive labor syndicates and traditional revolutionary armies. It’s a given that future forms of organization will have strong components that involve work and the workplace—absolutely. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the rise of a traditional “labor movement,” or anything resembling it. No such movement exists in China, and it’s not simply due to repression, because no such movement exists in Europe, the United States or other places lacking the “hard” suppression characteristic of Chinese state policy. There is no “labor movement” as such in China and, as we say: this is a good thing, in terms of the potential for a communist project.

A number of activist worker organizations and NGOs do exist, often bearing the brunt of state repression—as seen in the December 3 crackdown. Despite the important work being done by these groups, however, they remain small and have not generalized in a sense comparable to the historical workers’ movement in early 20th century China or elsewhere. Though some speak of themselves in these terms, in form they are more similar to contemporary activist worker-support networks in other countries.

 

LFe: How do environmental struggles in China intersect with riots and strikes?

Chuang: Riots often break out in response to police attempts to suppress environmental protestors. There are Chinese reports about this sort of thing almost every week, and major cases make it into English media every few months.

We haven’t heard of any intersection between strikes and environmental struggles in the sense of confronting conditions outside the workplace. This probably reflects the fact that most strikes are waged by migrant workers who do not plan to settle down in the areas where they work. If “environment” is expanded to include toxic conditions in the workplace and dormitories, those are sometimes factors in strikes (mainly aimed at other demands) and, more often, protests to get treatment or compensation for illness or death already caused by those conditions.

As for environmental struggles outside one’s own workplace, the main way they intersect with labor actions is when long-term residents of an area shut down a workplace because of pollution, and then the laid-off workers protest to get severance pay. This happened at least twice in late January, at an aluminum plant in Hunan and a steel plant in Anhui. The aluminum plant was shut down after peasants protested against water pollution they linked to a fall in agricultural yields and a rise in illnesses such as cancer. Over 600 workers were put on unpaid leave, and 400 of them marched 7 kilometers to demand compensation, back pay, insurance payments and medical examinations. The latter was demanded out of concern for the pollution’s effects on the workers’ own health—the only point of commonality with the peasants’ environmental demands—but apparently there were no efforts to link up with the peasants on this. In general, this type of struggle pits environmental protestors against the workers facing layoffs, and we’re not aware of any case where that conflict of interest was overcome.

 

LFe: What are the most effective ways for social movements in the West to support the struggles currently occurring in China?

Chuang: There is a tendency among activists in high-income countries to stage their support for struggles in low-income countries through actions such as demonstrations outside of consular buildings, or even in small parks where no one notices aside from the handful of self-congratulating activists themselves. These performances primarily function to make activists feel they are “doing something,” and to help them develop prestige within their subculture. This is partly determined by objective limitations: when a group of workers go on strike in China, for example, few Europeans learn about it until the strike is over, and even if it’s still going on, there is no way for the latter to donate to a strike fund without seriously increasing risk to workers and networks facilitating the transaction.

The transnationality of companies involved in such struggles points to the possibility of transnational proletarian actions and networks that could actually pressure such companies, but we’re aware of nothing like this other than consumer-oriented networks such as SACOM (Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior) aimed at pressuring companies into signing “Corporate Social Responsibility” agreements, on the one hand, and small independent boycotts attempting to support Chinese strikes, such as those of Yue Yuen footwear workers in 2014, on the other. The former can be simply condemned as neither effective for even immediate reformist goals nor conducive to the development of Chinese workers’ agency. The latter, at least, took Chinese workers’ initiative as their starting point, attempting to foment international proletarian support, but their limitation to (largely ineffective) boycotts of retail outlets prevented this sentiment from developing beyond small symbolic actions. This sort of action would be more effective if it spread to chokepoints along the global supply chain from manufacture to retail. This would require communication among logistics workers that is currently lacking, although there have been promising developments among warehouse workers in Italy, for example.

Hypothetically, the transnational character of capital in general and of certain companies in particular has created objective conditions for concrete actions of transnational solidarity that could seriously disrupt those companies’ profit margins, thus supporting the subversive initiatives of production workers. If anything, this is truer now than ever before, and the main limitations seem to be the lack of awareness and concrete connections among workers of different countries—and even among workplaces of the same companies in the same country. China is at the forefront of new security mechanisms (technical and political) aimed at forestalling such transnational proletarian solidarity facilitated by China’s own integration into the global market. At the same time, that integration cannot function without connecting proletarians across national borders in some way, and Chinese workers have become particularly savvy on the internet, with a few worker-activists seeking and distributing information about struggles in other countries and utilizing their international connections to support domestic struggles.

Chuang is primarily oriented toward conveying information about China to Anglophone readers, including the translation of Chinese proletarian narratives and analysis by Chinese activists, along with our own analysis. Some of us also work with existing Chinese platforms to introduce information about struggles and conditions elsewhere.

For proletarians outside of China, we would like to emphasize that, in the 21st century, everyone is connected to China to some extent. Especially with regard to the prospects of communist revolution, Chinese proletarians will be central in one way or another due to the central role of China and Chinese workers in the global economy, not to mention the sheer size of the Chinese population. This means that, if we want to play a role in any movement aspiring to supersede capitalism, we must develop personal relationships with Chinese workers and improve our understanding of Chinese conditions and history, going beyond the mythology fed to us by friend and foe alike.

One goal of Chuang is to help people in other countries to overcome that mythology and recognize that the conditions they experience as proletarians are not all that different from those experienced by people in China. We understand that the audience for this sort of thing, at the moment, is probably limited to certain niche markets—we have no illusions about this. But it’s also fairly evident that, with the economic slowdown in China, these sorts of questions are going to be asked more frequently by more and more people. In the same way that many began to more publicly question the fundamentals of capitalism after the crisis of 2008, we think that the China question is beginning to take on a similar character. So there is an opportunity for some of what we say, at least, to “leak out” beyond the otherwise hermetically-sealed activist scene.

 

Notes

  1. This is the title of a paper on the topic, published in Eurasian Geography and Economics Vol 51, Issue 4, 2010, by Kam Wing Chan.

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