October 7, 2015
Perry Anderson on the Specter of China
Posted on Mar 19, 2010
Huang’s central concern is with the fate of rural China, where, as he rightly insists, the majority of the population still lives and dies. The fate of urban labour is the subject of Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law. Studies of the working class anywhere in the world, once a staple of history and sociology, have declined along with labour movements as a political force; in recent years, perhaps only in France has writing of real distinction appeared. Lee’s book, written from a standpoint on the radical left, transforms this scene. Although quite different in mode and scale, in power nothing like it has appeared since E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. In fact, it could well have been called The Unmaking and Remaking of the Chinese Working Class. The product of seven years’ research and interview work on the ground, it is an ethnographic and analytic masterpiece.
When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order
By Martin Jacques
The Penguin Press HC, 576 pages
Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State
By Yasheng Huang
Cambridge University Press, 366 pages
Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt
By Ching Kwan Lee
University of California Press, 340 pages
The book is a diptych, one part devoted to the rustbelt of Manchuria, the other to the sunbelt of Guangdong. Its first half is a study of the destruction of the proletariat that built China’s principal industrial base after Liberation, as the great state-owned enterprises of the north-east were scrapped or sold off, leaving their workers jobless and often near-penniless, while officials and profiteers lined their pockets with what was left of all they had created. By coincidence, we have an unforgettable fresco of the wreckage of this old working class and its universe in Wang Bing’s nine-hour documentary West of the Tracks (2003), a landmark of world cinema in this century and a fitting pendant to Against the Law, made in Shenyang while Lee was conducting her research in the same city. The second part of Lee’s book explores the emergence of a new working class of young migrant labourers from the countryside, about half of them women, without collective identity or political memory, in the coastal export zones of the south-east. They have low-wage jobs, but no security, toiling up to 70 or 80 hours a week in often atrocious working conditions, with widespread exposure to abuse and injury. Dereliction in the rustbelt, super-exploitation in the sunbelt: the treatment of labour is pitiless in either zone.
How do workers react to it? In a system where they have no freedom of industrial or political organisation, and the social contract that once gave them a modest security and dignity in exchange for subordination has been jettisoned, the law – however authoritarian – becomes the only resource to which they can appeal. Any direct action risking police repression, protests typically find their way to the courts, in the hope that blatant violations of legality by employers or local officials will find some redress there – and in the belief that the central government, if it knew its laws were being broken, would take action to see them enforced. Such popular faith in the good intentions of the Party leadership might be seen as a Chinese version of the traditional Russian belief in the tsar as ‘Little Father’, unaware of the misdeeds of his bureaucrats and landlords. The central authorities naturally foster the illusion that they are not responsible for illegalities lower down, giving them leeway to step in with last minute concessions when protests look like getting out of hand.
In fact, as Lee makes clear, the law can only function as an effective system of control and mystification if the courts do not invariably act as rubber stamps for criminality or oppression. In general, that is just how they do behave. But in a minority of cases, labour disputes are decided – more often partially than wholly – in favour of workers, keeping alive the belief that the law remains a protection even where it is being brazenly flouted by those with state power behind them. In ways reminiscent of the 18th-century England depicted by Thompson in Whigs and Hunters, notions of ‘the rule of law’ become a battleground, in which the anger of those below seeks to wrest verdicts from the cynicism of those on high, as the only potential weapons of the weak to hand. The reason regular failure in this unequal contest does not lead to more explosive forms of protest, Lee shows, is material rather than ideological. In the rustbelt, workers dispossessed of everything else typically retain their own housing, privatised to them at low prices, as a safety net. In the sunbelt, migrant labourers still have rights to a plot of earth back in their villages, where land has not yet been privatised, as a fall-back. For all the wretchedness of their respective lots, neither is quite destitute: each has something to lose.
The sobriety and realism of these conclusions diminishes nothing of the tragedy of betrayed hopes and ruined lives that fills the pages of Against the Law. Lee’s capture of the voices of those caught in the relentless industrial mechanisms of the Reform Era, in one poignant interview after another, is among the finest accomplishments of her book. The stories are often heartbreaking, but the accents with which they are told speak of courage, indignation, stoicism, even humour, as much as bitterness, resignation or despair. Few sociological studies have combined structural and existential, objective and subjective truths so memorably as this one. Without taking stock of it, no sense of contemporary China is clear-eyed. In the 19th century, Europe looked to America as the future, if one still quite some way off. In the 21st century, the West looks towards China in something of the same way. So far, certainly, no Tocqueville of the East has appeared. Is what he once achieved repeatable? There is plenty of time yet. But it is unlikely that Democracy in America will find its successor, wherever else it might, in any Modernity in China.
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