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Spartacist English edition No. 61

Spring 2009

Women Workers and the Contradictions of China Today

Defend China Against Imperialism, Counterrevolution!
For Workers Political Revolution!

(Women and Revolution pages)

Correction Appended

The status of women today in China is a precise index of the huge contradictions in that society, a bureaucratically deformed workers state that we Trotskyists defend unconditionally against imperialism and internal social counterrevolution. In the conditions of the women of China we see the enormous gains of the 1949 Revolution over the backward, imperialist-dominated and tradition-bound old China. The smashing of capitalist class rule laid the basis for a vast growth in social production, living standards and women’s rights and brought hundreds of millions of Chinese women and men out of rural backwardness into the workforce of an increasingly industrialized society.

The advance of China since the 1949 Revolution and the ensuing collectivization of the economy, based on the expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a class, show the immense advantages of an economy whose motor force is not production for private profit. Until the 2008 global economic downturn, China’s annual economic growth rate averaged 10 percent for two decades. Some 40 percent of the population is now urbanized. Over half the working population is employed in manufacturing, transport, construction and the public service sector. These are progressive developments of great historic significance that far surpassed growth in the capitalist neocolonies of Asia. India, for example, achieved national independence shortly before the Chinese Revolution, but its economy remained capitalist. India’s per capita gross domestic product is now only half that of China, while China’s poverty rate is half that of India. The malnutrition rate among children in China is one-quarter the rate in India. In China, almost 90 percent of women are literate, nearly twice the rate of India.

China’s growth rate has been particularly dramatic in contrast to the stagnant or declining economies of the capitalist West and Japan. However, China is by no means completely insulated from the destructive irrationality of the capitalist world market. The current global financial meltdown has already had adverse effects on the Chinese economy. In particular, large numbers of workers from privately owned factories producing commodities—such as toys, apparel, consumer products—geared for export to “First World” consumers lost their jobs in 2008.

More fundamentally, China remains a nationally isolated workers state with a large impoverished peasant sector. The capital stock per person is 30 times greater in the U.S. and Japan than in China. This continuing material scarcity is a fundamental barrier to the liberation of China’s women and other toilers. A communist society can be built only on the basis of the most modern technology and an international division of labor, requiring proletarian revolution in at least a number of the most advanced capitalist countries. But from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping and his successors, including today’s Hu Jintao regime, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have preached the profoundly anti-Marxist notion that socialism could be built in a single country. In practice, “socialism in one country” has meant accommodating world imperialism and opposing the perspective of workers revolution internationally.

Socialism—a classless, egalitarian society—cannot be built in a single country but only on the basis of a huge leap in productivity within the framework of an international planned economy. As Karl Marx explained: “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development which this determines” (Critique of the Gotha Programme [1875]). The emancipation of women requires the replacement of the oppressive patriarchal family by collectivized childcare and household labor. Today, the overwhelming majority of Chinese women remain trapped in the institution of the family, in which working women are subject to the “second shift,” work in the home after their hours on the job. The Stalinist embrace of the family as integral to a socialist society adds an ideological barrier to the already formidable obstacle of material scarcity.

The situation of the dagongmei (working sisters)—the tens of millions of young women of peasant origin who have migrated to the cities to work for largely foreign-owned capitalist enterprises—shows these contradictions with particular sharpness. Central to the market “reforms” carried out by the ruling CCP over the last three decades was the creation of Special Economic Zones and other areas where workers are brutally exploited in factories owned by offshore Chinese capitalists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and American, West European, Japanese and South Korean corporations. These enterprises rely on a labor force consisting primarily of migrants from China’s relatively impoverished countryside.

As of August 2008, the Stratfor Web site estimated there were 150 to 200 million of these migrant workers, the “floating population.” While nationally the majority are male, the assembly lines of Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta, for example, one of the largest factory cities in China, have drawn the young and unskilled and have been estimated to be 70 percent female. Mainly in their late teens and early twenties, these unmarried women for the first time leave the stultifying conditions of the traditional peasant family and engage in collective social production, and in some cases collective social struggle.

This vast migrant workforce complements the strategic and powerful proletariat in China’s largely state-owned heavy industry sector. The view presented in much of the capitalist media and echoed by the reformist left that China is one giant sweatshop for light manufacturing for export is false. So too is the claim by reformist left groups that China has somehow been transformed into a capitalist state. Despite major inroads by imperialist, offshore Chinese and domestic capitalists, the key sectors of China’s economy remain under state ownership and control, as does the banking system. State-owned enterprises directly controlled by the central ministries in Beijing account for one-third of China’s total national output. And that third constitutes the strategic core of China’s industrial economy.

For more than a decade, China has been the world’s largest steel producer and now accounts for over a third of global production. The massive development of infrastructure—railways, roads, mass transit—has been possible only because of the collectivized economy. In response to the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the regime set in motion plans to build over a million prefabricated houses in three months, provide food for five million homeless people and rebuild or relocate flattened towns and cities. Hundreds of state-owned factories were commandeered for these tasks, and large state enterprises were ordered to increase output of needed materials. The contrast to the U.S. capitalist rulers’ racist, anti-working-class treatment of the mainly black victims of Hurricane Katrina is self-evident.

Yet even as rapid economic growth has improved life for millions of Chinese, the gap between rich and poor, city and countryside, has widened. Greater resources are now available to meet the basic needs of the population, but the ruling bureaucracy has starved public health care and primary education of funds. Increasing inequality and declining social services have fueled widespread protests. Labor struggles abound: against closures, against unpaid wages, pensions and benefits at state-owned enterprises, against conditions of brutal exploitation in the private sector. Rural areas are rife with peasant protests over illegal land seizures by local officials, corruption, pollution and other abuses. Following the Sichuan earthquake, grief-stricken parents and grandparents staged anti-corruption protests over the shoddily built schools that collapsed, killing many thousands of children.

China needs a proletarian political revolution led by a revolutionary Marxist (i.e., Leninist-Trotskyist) party to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy, a parasitic ruling caste. Bureaucratic rule must be replaced with the rule of elected workers and peasants councils committed to the struggle for international socialist revolution. The motor force for such a political revolution can be seen in the massive defensive struggles of the Chinese proletariat, such as a revolt by 20,000 miners and their families in the northeastern industrial town of Yangjiazhangzi in 2000. As miners burned cars and barricaded streets to protest the selling off of a state-owned molybdenum mine to management cronies, one said bitterly, “We miners have been working here for China, for the Communist Party since the revolution. And now, suddenly, my part of the mine is private” (Washington Post, 5 April 2000). These workers understood that such state property belongs to the working people. Who gave the managers the right to sell it off?

Taking their place alongside the heavy battalions of the industrial proletariat in the state sector, migrant workers—women and men—in the capitalist enterprises can play an important role in the fight to defend and extend the gains of the 1949 Revolution.

There is one path only to the social and economic modernization of China and the corresponding full liberation of women: the path of international proletarian revolution. Only the smashing of capitalist class rule in the more economically developed heartlands of world imperialism can lay a material basis to end scarcity and qualitatively advance the living standards of all, by creating a global planned economy in which social production is no longer for private profit. A workers and peasants government in China would promote social and economic equality for women in all aspects of life, while understanding that their complete liberation—and that of all humanity—hinges on the fight to overthrow bourgeois rule on a global basis and on the vast advance in social production that would follow.

Imperialists Target China for Counterrevolution

From the 1949 Revolution and the Korean War of 1950-53 to the continued arming of Taiwan, U.S. imperialism has never ceased in its drive to overthrow the Chinese deformed workers state and regain the mainland for untrammeled capitalist exploitation. Since the destruction of the Soviet Union through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, the United States and other imperialist powers have made China their strategic target. U.S. bases in Central Asia are part of an attempt to surround China with American military installations. The Pentagon has actively pursued an anti-missile “defense” program in order to neutralize any Chinese response to an American nuclear first strike. In 2005 the U.S. concluded a pact with Japan to defend Taiwan, a bastion of the offshore Chinese bourgeoisie.

We support the development by China and North Korea of nuclear arsenals as part of maintaining a necessary deterrent against imperialist nuclear blackmail. In a joint statement demanding “Down With U.S./Japan Counterrevolutionary Alliance!”, the U.S. and Japanese sections of the International Communist League wrote that we “stand for the unconditional military defense of China and North Korea—as we do for the other remaining deformed workers states, Vietnam and Cuba—against imperialist attack and internal capitalist counterrevolution.... We are opposed to the Stalinists’ plan of reunification with Taiwan embodied in ‘one country, two systems.’ Instead, we advance a program for the revolutionary reunification of China, which requires a workers political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy on the mainland, a proletarian socialist revolution in Taiwan to overthrow and expropriate the bourgeoisie, and the expropriation of the Hong Kong capitalists” (“Defend the Chinese and North Korean Workers States!”, Workers Vanguard No. 844, 18 March 2005). In sharp contrast to the reformist left internationally, we also denounce the imperialists’ campaigns for “free Tibet” and “human rights,” which are designed to rally anti-Communist public opinion against the People’s Republic.

The bonapartist Stalinist regime in Beijing is an obstacle to defense and extension of the revolutionary gains. The CCP that under Mao led the 1949 Revolution was based on the peasantry, not the working class—i.e., the Revolution resulted in a deformed workers state. The Stalinist CCP cohered into a privileged bureaucratic caste resting parasitically atop an economy that was soon collectivized. This bureaucracy plays no essential role in social production. It maintains its privileged position through a mixture of repression and periodic concessions to sections of the restive workers. Opponents of the Stalinist regime face not only imprisonment but also the state terror of the death penalty enshrined in the country’s judicial code. As Marxists, we oppose the institution of capital punishment on principle, in the deformed workers states no less than in the capitalist countries.

Under the guns of hostile U.S. imperialism, Mao’s regime initially struck an “anti-imperialist” posture, but this took the form of promoting and conciliating bourgeois-nationalist regimes in Asia and elsewhere. Mao backed the Indonesian CP’s support to the capitalist Sukarno government, a disastrous class-collaborationist policy that paved the way for the massacre of over half a million Communists, workers and peasants by the military in 1965. Around the same time, emerging tensions between the respective nationalist bureaucracies in Moscow and Beijing erupted in a bitter split between the two regimes in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, Mao had forged a criminal alliance with U.S. imperialism against the Soviet Union, even as the U.S. rained bombs on the heroic Vietnamese workers and peasants.

By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China had built a substantial heavy industry sector, but was still an overwhelmingly rural society. Agricultural production remained technologically backward and a large fraction of the peasantry lived in abject poverty. The introduction of market “reforms” under Deng in 1978 followed a pattern inherent in Stalinist bonapartist rule. To function effectively, a centrally planned economy must be administered by a government of democratically elected workers councils. But the Stalinist misrulers are hostile to any expression of workers democracy, substituting arbitrary administrative fiat in its place. In light of the imbalances inherent in a bureaucratically administered planned economy, there is a tendency for Stalinist regimes to replace centralized planning and management with market mechanisms. Since managers and workers cannot be subject to the discipline of soviet democracy (workers councils), increasingly the bureaucracy sees subjecting the economic actors to the discipline of market competition as the only answer to economic inefficiency (see Spartacist pamphlet, “Market Socialism” in Eastern Europe [July 1988]).

The policies of the CCP bureaucracy have greatly strengthened potential counterrevolutionary forces within China, generating a new class of rich Chinese capitalist entrepreneurs as well as a technocratic/managerial layer enjoying a privileged lifestyle. The “Great China” nationalism (overlapping with Han chauvinism) promoted by the ruling bureaucracy serves to justify the growth of these hostile class forces while infecting the worker and peasant masses with bourgeois-nationalist ideology. Linking the regimes of Mao, Deng and Hu, this poisonous nationalism—dashed with occasional rhetoric about a “harmonious” socialist society—is wielded to achieve social cohesion. Both Mao-style bureaucratic commandism and the whip of the market used by Deng and his successors are squarely within the framework of Stalinist nationalism; both are hostile to and counterposed to workers democracy and the essential perspective of international socialist revolution. The revolutionary working-class party needed to lead a proletarian political revolution to victory can be built only in irreconcilable opposition to the nationalism inherent in Stalinism.

The International Revolutionary Road to Women’s Liberation

Marxists understand that the institution of the family is not an immutable, timeless institution, but a social relation subject to historical change. In his classic 1884 work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels traced the origin of the family and the state to the division of society into classes. With the rise of a social surplus beyond basic subsistence through the development of agriculture, a leisured, ruling class was able to develop based on private appropriation of that surplus, thus moving human society away from the primitive egalitarianism of the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic). The centrality of the family began with its role in the inheritance of property, which required women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination. In the 10,000 years since the advent of class society, the family has taken many forms—from polygamous to extended to nuclear—reflecting different political economies and their religions. But the oppression of women is a fundamental feature of all class societies.

The policies of the early Soviet government under V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky toward the oppressed women of Russia were an integral component of the liberating and internationalist program of Marxism. The early Soviet state was an economically backward country in which women’s subjugation had deep roots in the productive relations of a largely peasant society based on family labor. Furthermore, Soviet Russia’s urban industrial economy had been devastated by seven years of imperialist and then civil war, ravaging the ranks of the urban workers who had made the Revolution. Yet in the face of this harsh situation, the Bolsheviks did everything they could to effect an all-around improvement in the conditions of women. Simultaneously, they fought with might and main to break the isolation of the young workers state, building the Communist International (CI, or Comintern) to promote and lead the struggles for world proletarian revolution.

Early Soviet legislation gave women full equality in every sphere, including the right to vote, to divorce and to own property. The dominant Orthodox church was officially severed from all state power, while an early decree established the noninterference of the government in all private, consensual sexual matters. But the Bolsheviks knew such democratic measures were insufficient. As Lenin emphasized in a 1919 speech to working women, “Owing to her work in the house, the woman is still in a difficult position. To effect her complete emancipation and make her the equal of the man it is necessary for the national economy to be socialised and for women to participate in common productive labour” (“The Tasks of the Working Women’s Movement in the Soviet Republic,” September 1919).

The early Soviet regime took far-reaching measures to free women from household drudgery, including collective childcare and communal kitchens. However, these measures ran up against the barriers of poverty. For example, free abortion on demand became the law in 1920, but the country lacked the doctors, medicine and hospitals to provide abortions to all who wanted them, especially in the countryside. Preference was given to working women, causing great hardship to those women who were turned away.

The Bolshevik leaders understood that advancing to socialism and emancipating women from the oppression of the family required a huge leap in social production and looked to early revolutions in Central and West Europe. But with the defeat of the wave of working-class upsurges that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, especially in Germany in 1923, demoralization set in among the working masses. Isolation, poverty and defeat propelled the ascent of a conservative bureaucratic caste centered on Joseph Stalin that began to dominate the Soviet Communist Party and state by early 1924. Later that year, the Stalinist bureaucracy first raised the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country,” and, as it consolidated power over the following years, increasingly abandoned the fight for world revolution. This was to have a direct impact on the fate of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution. Domestically, the Soviet Stalinists reversed many of the gains won by women through the Revolution. In 1936, abortion was made illegal and the liberation of women declared to be the “reconstruction of the family on a new socialist basis.” (For an extensive treatment of this subject, see “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist No. 59, Spring 2006.)

In his searing 1936 indictment of the bureaucracy, The Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky explained why the Stalinists had come to glorify the oppressive institution of the family. Emphasizing the material backwardness of the Soviet Union, Trotsky wrote, “You cannot ‘abolish’ the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealizable on a basis of ‘generalized want’.” He continued:

“Instead of openly saying, ‘We have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realize this aim,’ the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat.”

Trotsky’s polemic applies with equal force to the Stalinist rulers of China, which was even more backward when it emerged from the 1949 Revolution than was Russia. Following Stalinist dogma, the ruling CCP likewise glorifies the family as a “socialist” institution. Despite all the rhetoric about “equality,” women have yet to achieve either equal pay for equal work or equal access to highly skilled jobs and training. Instead, the masses are inculcated with Chinese “family values.” Chinese TV programs feature stories praising “filial children” who go through great sacrifices to provide care for their aged parents. The All-China Women’s Federation sponsors awards for the “top ten outstanding mothers” and the “Five-good Families.”

China and the Permanent Revolution

The extreme degradation of women in old China was integral to the Confucian code that weighed down the Chinese population in ancient customs and pre-capitalist social relations. A classic example of the integration of the institutions of the family, class and state, traditional Confucian China prescribed filial obedience to father, landlord and emperor. For a woman, this meant complete subjugation. She could not inherit or own land. She was socialized to be not merely submissive but invisible. Ruled by her father, her husband or her son, she could be sold into marriage, concubinage or prostitution. While the crippling practice of footbinding began as a custom of the upper classes, by the 19th century it was “vigorously accepted by the gentry and emulated wherever possible by the peasantry. As it filtered down through the masses of the peasantry, the norm of the bound foot lost its elite associations, and in many parts of China the practice became an essential criterion for any girl’s marriageability” (Susan Greenhalgh, “Bound Feet, Hobbled Lives: Women in Old China,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Spring 1977).

The historic achievements of the agrarian revolution and basic democratic rights for women—such as the right to choose a husband or to own property—are considered by Marxists to be tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions, as in Europe beginning in the 17th century. But China could not follow that road. Its native bourgeoisie was too weak, corrupt and dependent on imperialism, too connected to the rural landlords, too fearful of the working class and peasant masses, to resolve the bourgeois-democratic tasks such as national liberation and the smashing of the tradition-bound landlord class that oppressed and exploited the peasantry.

In 1911, the first Chinese Revolution saw the overthrow of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty by a bourgeois-nationalist Republican movement. The nationalist Guomindang (GMD), founded the following year, addressed aspects of the wretched status of women—e.g., opposing footbinding—because any attempt to modernize Chinese society ran straight up against the woman question. But the 1911 Revolution, carried out with the assistance of the imperialist powers, left the country divided under the rule of the warlords and imperialists.

During and after World War I, China saw the development of industrial production and with it a tiny but powerful proletariat. Women workers made up a significant section of this workforce, which by 1919 amounted to 1.5 million workers concentrated in large enterprises in urban centers. Thus China became a prime example of combined and uneven development—the most advanced industry dominating the growing cities, while in the vast countryside conditions of feudal misery reigned. This posed sharply the program of permanent revolution, first developed by Trotsky for the particular conditions of tsarist Russia, which held that the realization of the tasks of the democratic revolution in countries of belated capitalist development was inconceivable other than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the masses of oppressed peasants.

Only the proletarian conquest of power, necessarily placing socialist tasks on the immediate agenda, and the fight to extend workers rule to the advanced capitalist countries could cut the chains that bound China. The prospects for such a revolution in China began to develop in 1919, when China exploded politically with the May 4th Movement, a student-centered upheaval against the imperialist subjugation and division of the country. Out of this came the formation of the Communist Party in 1921 under the leadership of Chen Duxiu, a leading Chinese intellectual, who, inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, found his way from radical liberalism to Marxism. The party grew steadily for several years, then explosively after the outbreak of the second Chinese Revolution in 1925, when it won the allegiance of hundreds of thousands of workers and layers of the radicalized urban intelligentsia.

The early CCP made great efforts to win over Chinese women. It emphasized the materialist understanding that women’s oppression was rooted in the institution of the family and could be eradicated only by overcoming the backwardness of Chinese society as a whole. Even before the CCP’s founding congress, communists in Guangzhou were publishing a women’s journal, Labor and Women. In 1922, the CCP set up a committee to oversee work among women, modeled on the women’s section of the Bolshevik Party. It was initially concentrated in Shanghai, where women constituted over half the working class.

However, the early thrust of the CCP to seek a proletarian revolutionary solution along the lines of the Bolshevik Revolution was soon reversed. In 1922 a Comintern representative instructed the CCP to join the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang. Over the next two or three years, this developed into a full-scale liquidation of the young workers party. This meant resurrecting a retrograde variant of the Menshevik theory of “two-stage revolution” that had been refuted by the Bolshevik Revolution in tsarist Russia—subordinating the interests of the proletariat to those of an imaginary “progressive” bourgeoisie, which was in fact tied to the imperialists and landlords. Trotsky fought within the Comintern against the political liquidation of the CCP, and a large section of the Chinese party leadership, including Chen Duxiu, also initially opposed this disastrous policy.

The 1927 Shanghai massacre marked the bloody defeat of the second Chinese Revolution, as the GMD under Chiang Kai-shek beheaded the vanguard of the Chinese working class, killing tens of thousands and smashing the organizations of the proletariat. Particularly savage terror was directed at Communist-led women’s organizations, which threatened the foundation—family and class—of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Thousands of Communist women activists were raped, tortured and killed for the “crime” of wearing bobbed hair or “men’s clothing.”

The 1927 disaster led Trotsky to conclude that the theory of permanent revolution had general applicability to countries of belated capitalist development with a sufficient proletarian concentration (see Spartacist pamphlet, The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution [April 2008]). Trotsky wrote extensively about the crisis in China and summarized the international implications of the Stalinized Comintern’s promulgation of “socialism in one country” in his 1928 Critique of the draft program of the Communist International, later published in The Third International After Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970). His fight against class collaboration and for proletarian class independence from all wings of the bourgeoisie was joined by hundreds of young Chinese Communists studying in Moscow and by key elements in the CCP in China, including Chen Duxiu, who became the central leader of Chinese Trotskyism.

Mao’s rise to leadership in the CCP followed over the next few years. Abandoning the cities for the road of peasant-guerrilla warfare, the CCP changed its very nature (see Benjamin I. Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao [New York: Harper and Row, 1967]). As Trotsky put it, the party ripped itself away from the class. In the 1930s the CCP became a peasant-based military force with a declassed petty-bourgeois leadership. Opposing this anti-Marxist perspective, the Trotskyists remained in the cities, struggling against great odds and under conditions of intense persecution to maintain roots in the working class (see “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism,” Spartacist No. 53, Summer 1997).

Women’s Liberation and the 1949 Revolution

As the CCP became a peasant party, this necessarily affected its policies on the woman question. The Mao leadership could not afford to affront the traditional social mores of peasant men, especially those serving in the CCP’s Red Army. Thus work among women in the liberated areas was conservative in comparison to the radical Communist-led struggles for women’s liberation of the 1920s centered in the cities.

In 1931, Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria. In 1935, in line with the class-collaborationist “people’s front” policy promulgated at the Comintern’s Seventh Congress, the CCP began calling for a broad “anti-Japanese” coalition encompassing the “patriotic” bourgeoisie and landlords. This call was consummated in a second “united front” with Chiang’s GMD in 1937, after the Japanese imperialists began extending their hold to the rest of China. The alliance between the CCP and GMD was more on the order of a non-aggression pact, and a very unstable one at that, with Chiang’s forces staging repeated attacks on the Communist-led peasant armies. While Mao agreed (on paper) to disband the “soviet” governments the CCP had set up in areas under its control and to share administration with the GMD, in practice the Communists maintained exclusive control over those areas. Thus, when Chiang’s war effort became subordinated to U.S. imperialism following the U.S. entry into the Pacific War in December 1941, with American general Joseph Stillwell taking command of the GMD armed forces, Mao’s Red Army continued to wage an independent struggle against the Japanese occupiers, warranting military support by revolutionary Marxists. The leading role played by Mao’s Red Army in any real fight for Chinese national independence greatly enhanced the CCP’s authority and influence and vastly expanded the area under its control by the end of World War II.

At the same time, Mao held religiously to his commitments to the “patriotic” capitalists and landlords in Red Army territory throughout the period of the “united front,” opposing the confiscation of the landlords’ property. This basically froze the old social order in the countryside, perpetuating the enslavement of peasant women to housework and husband. Only when civil war with the Guomindang erupted in 1946 did the CCP place itself at the head of an agrarian revolution, laying a basis for the social emancipation of peasant women.

Women played a key role in the final victory of Mao’s peasant army. Jack Belden, an American leftist and eyewitness to the events, wrote at the time:

“In the women of China, the Communists possessed, almost ready made, one of the greatest masses of disinherited human beings the world has ever seen. And because they found the key to the heart of these women, they also found one of the keys to victory over Chiang Kai-shek.”

—Belden, China Shakes the World
(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949)

In the rural areas conquered by the CCP, the 1947 Agrarian Reform Law gave men and women equal rights to the land. The impact of this revolution in property relations for women was electrifying. By 1949 in older liberated areas, 50 to 70 percent of women worked on the land. In some villages, peasant women were the main activists in confiscating landlord property. When the Communists finally won the civil war, they swept away much of the feudalist garbage suffocating Chinese women (e.g., arranged marriages, female infanticide and the selling of peasant girls into concubinage to wealthy landlords, merchants and moneylenders).

The declaration of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 marked the birth of a bureaucratically deformed workers state. The proletariat, atomized after two decades of repression under both the Guomindang and the Japanese and further weakened by the severe economic decline of the 1930s, played no role as a class in the 1949 Revolution. Extraordinary historical circumstances made possible this peasant-based social overturn, including the internal decay of the corrupt GMD regime and the existence of the Soviet Union, which gave material aid to Mao’s forces. Entering the war against Japan in its last weeks, Soviet forces rapidly moved into Manchuria (remaining until May 1946) and northern Korea (where they stayed until late 1948), as well as several other Japanese-held areas.

The 1949 Revolution brought literacy to the younger generation of women through free universal education, a crucial step toward their integration into economic and social life. On May Day 1950, the government promulgated a Marriage Law that banned concubinage and arranged marriages while giving women the right of divorce and to own property. Many a peasant daughter, daughter-in-law or wife was able for the first time in Chinese history to choose her own marriage partner, reject a violent husband or leave an exploitative household. These newly established rights were publicized in mass agitational campaigns and popularized with such slogans as “Women hold up half the sky” and “Anything a man can do, women can also do.”

But the Marriage Law met stubborn resistance in the countryside. In the years after its promulgation, an estimated 80,000 people were killed annually over marriage issues, chiefly young women attempting to assert their rights. CCP cadre assigned to enforce the law in the villages often had family and kinship relations to male heads of household, and most bowed to the overwhelming pressure to maintain the traditional family. The formal rights of young unmarried women and those who wanted to leave their husbands were undermined by a lack of economic independence. Not only did the primitive agricultural economy provide barely enough for subsistence living, but the head of the household—in most cases the woman’s father, father-in-law or husband—had control of the land. Nor did the collectivization of agriculture and the development of the rural communes in the mid-late 1950s significantly reduce women’s economic dependence on the patriarchal family structure. Even when granted a divorce, a woman did not get a share of the property of her former husband’s family.

Peasant Women Under Mao

China under Mao lacked the economic resources to provide the mass of peasant women (and men) with employment in industry and other urban economic sectors. However, even given these objective constraints, the policies and practices of the Mao regime contributed to the continuing oppression of women, especially in the countryside. The economic strategy pursued in this period aimed to maximize the surplus extracted from agriculture and redirect it to investment in capital-intensive technologies in urban-centered industrial production. Industrial output increased from 20 to 45 percent of the net material product from 1952 to 1975. But in the same period the nonagricultural labor force increased from 16 to only 23 percent of the total labor force (Carl Riskin, China’s Political Economy: The Quest for Development Since 1949 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987]).

Because agricultural production methods remained so labor-intensive, peasant families had an economic incentive, reinforced by traditional Confucian attitudes, to have a large number of (preferably male) children. This further increased the burden on peasant women. Within the framework of the rural communes, families derived much of their income from sales of handicrafts and produce grown on private plots. The regulations and practices governing the communes discriminated against women, who received on average less income (work points) than men even for doing similar tasks. While income earned by women was calculated separately, the combined family income was given to the (typically male) head of household.

There was an attempt to establish communal kitchens during the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, a utopian adventure aimed at catapulting China to the level of the advanced industrial countries through mobilizing mass peasant labor. But the poor quality of the kitchens generated huge discontent, and they were quickly abandoned when the Great Leap collapsed, an event that led an exhausted society into one of the worst famines in history. We oppose the forced communalization of the peasantry and the elimination of all restraints on the duration and intensity of labor that characterized Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward.

As part of the post-Mao “market reforms,” in the early 1980s the agricultural communes were dissolved and replaced by the “household responsibility” system, a reversion to individual family farming based on long-term (up to 30-year) leases. This initially led to an increase in productivity. However, the “reforms” have had major negative effects on the conditions of peasant women, including a marked widening in the educational levels of rural men and women and the return on a significant scale of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

The communes had provided free primary and secondary schooling to all children. When the communes were broken up, this responsibility was transferred to the rural townships. But the central government slashed funding (which has since gradually increased), so local authorities imposed stiff tuition and other fees. As a consequence, the number of students enrolled in primary schools declined from 129 to 90 million and in secondary schools from 48 to 26 million between 1978 and 1993 (Tamara Jacka, Women’s Work in Rural China: Change and Continuity in an Era of Reform [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997]). This decline was overwhelmingly concentrated among girls, as many peasant families were willing to make the economic sacrifice for their sons. A more recent study reported in the state-run China Daily (2 April 2007) shows that from 2000 to 2005 the number of illiterate Chinese adults jumped by one-third, from 87 million to 116 million—and they are disproportionately women.

Today, upon marriage a young woman still typically moves to her husband’s village and, often, into his parents’ household. The young married woman is thus subject to the authority of her in-laws, especially her mother-in-law. The pre-1949 system of arranged marriages in rural areas has been replaced by semi-arranged marriages. While it is rare for couples to be forced or pressured into marrying against their will, marrying without the consent of the respective parents is frowned on. Traditional practices such as the bride price and dowry remain common, and have in fact become more prevalent in the post-Mao “reform” era as a consequence of the reversion to individual family farming. Recently, the government has announced that peasants will be able to sell their leaseholds to other peasants or various private enterprises. How this will play out in reality is to date unclear.

The Return of Female Infanticide

Despite the growing inequalities, even the average peasant woman is significantly better off today. Electrification of the countryside was a huge advance, providing greater access to labor-saving appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, as well as basic modern technology (e.g., televisions). In the cities, those women who have gained a measure of financial independence correspondingly have a greater degree of sexual freedom. Premarital sex, once illegal under the Stalinists’ puritanical moral code, is commonplace, while divorce is far more readily available. According to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, the divorce rate has more than tripled nationwide since 1985.

But market forces have unleashed backward social tendencies that are the natural twin of exploitation, bringing a recrudescence of some of the more hideous oppressive aspects of the old China. A stark manifestation is the resurgence of female infanticide, signaled by a sharp rise of infant mortality among girl children. This has been accompanied by the now common practice of sex-selective abortions made possible through ultrasound medical technology. According to Liu Bohong, vice director of the women’s studies institute under the All-China Women’s Federation, China’s sex ratio for newborns in 2005 was 123 boys for every 100 girls. (The international average is 104-107 boys for every 100 girls.)

As against Mao, Deng considered uncontrolled population growth to be a major obstacle to China’s modernization. In the late 1970s, the government imposed a restrictive family policy, enforced with stiff economic penalties, limiting urban couples to one child and rural couples to two (but only if the first is a daughter or born handicapped; there is no limit on the number of children among national minorities). In the mid 1980s, the Deng regime began to eliminate guaranteed lifetime employment for workers in state-owned enterprises, the “iron rice bowl,” which also guaranteed a basic level of social benefits. Except for a small minority of older employees entitled to state-funded pensions, the mass of workers are now dependent in their old age on personal savings and the support of their children; since daughters typically marry out, they care for their husbands’ parents in old age. Thus the “one child” policy, combined with patriarchal family structure and the far greater earning capacity of men compared to women, has resulted in a marked sexual imbalance even in the cities. For example, in Beijing 109 boys were born for every 100 girls in 2005.

The situation in the countryside is now even more extreme and in stark contrast to the period immediately after the Revolution, when the nationalization of land, its egalitarian distribution to the peasantry and the subsequent agricultural collectivization provided a minimum economic existence to all. During the first three decades of the People’s Republic, the sex ratio of newborn children corresponded to the natural demographic norm. With the labor-intensive agricultural technology on the rural communes, the more members of the household, daughters as well as sons, doing farm work or related construction activities, the more work points were earned and the greater the income available to the entire peasant household.

Today, the elimination of free medical care, another important aspect of the market-oriented “reforms,” has hit peasant families and migrant workers especially hard. A male child will typically be born in a clinic or hospital, a female at home; a son when sick will be taken to a doctor but not so a daughter. Since the abolition of the communes, most plots in China are so small that they can be effectively worked by one or two experienced peasants; having more members of the household engaged in farm work is economically redundant.

A resurgence in superstitious beliefs and religious cults (such as Falun Gong) has also accompanied the destruction of the system of free medical care, as people turn to “traditional medicine” and other holdovers from the days of old China (see “Falun Gong: Force for Counterrevolution in China,” Workers Vanguard No. 762, 3 August 2001).

Birth control—a key instrument in enabling women to have control over their own lives—is a critical question for a country with 20 percent of the world’s people but only 7 percent of its arable land. A workers and peasants government in China would encourage, through education, the voluntary self-limitation of family size. We stand for the right of individual women to decide whether to have children and how many. As we wrote over a decade ago: “In the Chinese deformed workers state with its brutal repressive apparatus, the regime has used a myriad of means to limit births, from economic incentives to rigid bureaucratic control over the masses of workers and peasants, which in the very personal matter of childbearing can be hideously intrusive” (“China: ‘Free Market’ Misery Targets Women,” Women and Revolution No. 45, Winter-Spring 1996).

A government based on democratically elected workers and peasants councils would make reversing the present sexual imbalance a key priority. Through central economic planning, it would seek to provide all Chinese citizens with free, quality medical care, and to make state-funded pensions available to both urban workers and rural toilers. The resources necessary to support those too old (or ill or disabled) to work should come from the collective economic surplus generated by the laboring population, and not be dependent on individual savings or the income of one’s children. A workers government would promote methods to encourage the education and training of young women as a means toward breaking down the cultural prejudice in favor of sons that has been reinforced by the market-oriented policies of the bureaucracy.

Liberating women from the patriarchal peasant family requires the rational collectivization and modernization of agriculture. With the majority of the population still living in the countryside, where production methods remain primitive and there is little modern infrastructure, such collectivization would entail a profound transformation of Chinese society.

The introduction of modern technology—from combines to chemical fertilizers to the whole complex of scientific farming—would require a qualitatively higher industrial base than now exists. In turn, an increase in agricultural productivity would raise the need for a huge expansion of urban industrial jobs to absorb the surplus of labor no longer needed in the countryside. Clearly, this would involve a lengthy process, particularly given the relatively low level of productivity of China’s existing industrial base. Both the tempo and, in the final analysis, realizability of this perspective hinge on the aid that China would receive from a socialist Japan or a socialist America, underlining again the need for international proletarian revolution.

From Young Peasant Woman to Migrant Worker

Following the 1949 Revolution, the nationalization of the economy and inauguration of central planning brought millions of women into social production for the first time. Most, however, were relegated to the least skilled, least mechanized and lower paying jobs. They also made up the majority of cooperative factory workers as opposed to the largely male workforce in the more skilled, mechanized and higher paid state enterprises. Further, over half of some 30 million workers who lost their jobs when many state enterprises were privatized or restructured in the mid-late 1990s were women. But while women’s employment in state industry decreased, it soared in private industry, especially in factories owned by foreign and offshore Chinese capital. This development is likely to be reversed during the current global economic downturn.

Female migrant workers are overwhelmingly young and single, typically moving to the cities while still in their teens. Most endure grueling sweatshop conditions. The working day averages 11 to 12 hours, often seven days a week. Labor discipline is harsh, with wages often based on productivity and pay docked for any defects in the product. Residential segregation is common, often in crowded dormitories. Safety precautions and mechanisms are primitive or nonexistent. A government study in the mid 1990s found that toxic or other unsafe conditions were present in 40 percent of industrial enterprises in Shenzhen, a major manufacturing center in Guangdong (Tao Jie, Zheng Bijun and Shirley L. Mow, eds., Holding Up Half the Sky: Chinese Women Past, Present, and Future [New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2004]).

Yet every year millions of young women leave their villages for the factories of urban China. And most know what awaits them, for they usually seek employment in industrial or other enterprises where relatives and friends from their village are already working. Even taking into account the higher cost of living in the cities, the economic advantages of becoming a migrant worker are substantial. In 2007, according to official government statistics, the annual net per capita income among rural families was 4,140 yuan. The same year, the average income of migrant workers was 14,400 yuan—more than three times as much. One young woman graphically described the squalor of the family farm from which she had escaped: “To lighten their [her parents’] load, I went to the mountains to collect pig feed, and then fed the pigs and the ducks; at harvest helped in the fields, all day in the mud, like a mud monkey; still couldn’t buy a decent piece of clothes” (quoted in Dorothy J. Solinger, Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999]).

Many women also seek to avoid parental and community pressure to marry young, and to experience at least for a few years the cultural advantages of urban life. When asked why they originally migrated, many young women interviewed by Australian researcher Tamara Jacka answered “to develop myself,” “to broaden my horizons,” “to exercise independence,” “for my education” or similar responses (Jacka, Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration, and Social Change [London: M.E. Sharpe, 2006]).

In Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005), Pun Ngai, a Hong Kong academic of feminist sympathies, quotes the words of one of the few relatively older women workers in the factory, a cook in the cafeteria: “We never dreamed of leaving the family and the village. Women, always kept at home, did all the cooking and chores, waiting to get married and give birth to sons.” As harsh as factory conditions are for migrant women workers, life in the impoverished villages before 1978 was even worse. The experience of working in the cities underscores the contrast between town and country. As one migrant woman worker commented: “When you’ve lived in the city for a while, your thinking changes, you’re constantly thinking about how to improve life in the countryside” (quoted in Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008]).

Many migrant women workers experience relative economic independence and social freedom for only a few years, after which they return to their villages to get married. But they return with a new sense of social consciousness and proletarian power, often gained through direct experience in collective struggle against the capitalist employers.

The immense potential power of China’s industrial proletariat was shown in spring 2007 in a series of strikes by port workers in Shenzhen, the fourth-largest container port in the world. In 2004, Shenzhen saw labor protests involving 300,000 workers. In nearby Huizhou, women workers took the lead in a series of militant labor actions, halting production lines and blocking access roads, against Gold Peak Industrial Holding Ltd., a Hong Kong- and Singapore-based corporation that owned and operated two electric battery factories in the city.

Abolish the Stalinists’ Discriminatory Hukou System!

The bureaucracy’s household registration (hukou) system, which severely restricts urban residency, education and health care for rural Chinese, makes migrants’ tenure in the city transitory and insecure. Migrant workers receive only temporary residence permits—for a substantial fee—and some have no permits at all. If women migrants marry and especially if they get pregnant, they are likely to be fired and unlikely to be hired elsewhere. Urban men are loath to marry a woman with a rural hukou. Married migrant couples often pay much more for their children’s health care and schooling than those with official permanent urban residency.

The bureaucracy’s hukou system has in effect created an internal immigrant population concentrated in the lowest levels of the working class. Established in 1955 under Mao, the hukou’s original purpose was to ration goods in an economy of scarcity, especially by preventing a mass of peasants from flooding into the cities to seek jobs in state enterprises, where employment was restricted to legal urban residents. With the opening up of China to foreign investment, the hukou has taken on a different function. The spread of foreign-owned manufacturing facilities has been based on the mobility, insecure legal status and very low wages of a huge migrant workforce. While some migrants have been hired in state-owned enterprises on a temporary basis, this key sector of China’s economy has largely remained the preserve of workers with an urban hukou. Thus the bureaucracy has served as a sort of labor contractor for imperialist capital and offshore Chinese capitalists. The hukou also serves to reinforce the family: it is inherited and records are kept by the household head, to be produced, for example, by the parents before a person can marry.

The migrant population is itself divided between those who have legal status and those who do not. Almost all migrant workers in factories and other major enterprises like Wal-Mart have temporary urban residency permits. However, there are millions of “undocumented” migrants—no one knows exactly how many—who eke out an existence as casual laborers, housemaids and nannies, street vendors and the like. The need to tamp down on social discontents in both rural and urban areas and to ensure a stable labor supply has led the regime to consider reforming or replacing the hukou system; trial reforms have been enacted in some areas. Nonetheless, in the buildup to the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing authorities launched a crackdown on migrant workers, forcing hundreds of thousands—many of whom had built the Olympic facilities under grueling conditions—to leave the city. We oppose the arbitrary and discriminatory hukou system and call for migrant workers to have the same rights and access to benefits as legally recognized residents.

China’s workers need a Trotskyist party to lead a political revolution that ousts the privileged Stalinist bureaucratic caste and establishes a government based on democratically elected workers and peasants councils representing all sectors of the proletariat and the rural toilers. Crucial questions facing the workers state can be resolved effectively only when those who labor decide. These questions range from issues of military and international policy to domestic economic policy, including such administrative measures as may be needed to deal with population mobility or particular instances of scarcity or disaster. As Trotsky put it: “It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy” (The Revolution Betrayed).

Migrant Workers and Pro-Capitalist “Democrats”

The CCP bureaucracy now includes substantial elements with familial or other ties to capitalist entrepreneurs, and in 2007 the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress enacted a law strengthening private property rights for individuals and businesses. Nonetheless, the bureaucracy still rests on the material base of the collectivized economy, from which it derives its power and income. However, it defends the gains embodied in the Chinese deformed workers state only to the extent that it fears the proletariat. Faced with seething anger at the base of society, the Hu regime is treading warily, slowing down some “free market” measures in the name of building a “harmonious society” while imprisoning and even executing some officials for blatant corruption.

In 2006, the official CCP propaganda department issued a statement expressing concern over the low wages paid to migrant workers by their employers (Face-to-Face with Theoretical Hot Spots [Beijing: Study Press and People’s Publishing House, 2006]). Worried that the terrible pay and working conditions could produce broader unrest among migrant workers, the bureaucracy has enacted a new labor law that encourages long-term labor contracts and greater access to benefits for migrant workers. The state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is now organizing enterprises owned by offshore Chinese capitalists and foreign corporations.

Thus the aggressively anti-union American retail giant Wal-Mart has been forced to accept union recognition in its 100-plus outlets in China. A 2006 article in Japan Focus described how workers at a Wal-Mart store in Fujian fought to organize their union: “At 6.30 a.m. they declared the union branch formed and sang the Internationale beneath a banner that read, ‘Determined to take the road to develop trade unionism with Chinese characteristics!’” (Anita Chan, “Organizing Wal-Mart: The Chinese Trade Union at a Crossroads,” Japan Focus, 8 September 2006).

A number of Western and Chinese feminist academics who have spoken out on behalf of migrant women workers claim the latter can find allies among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other “humanitarian” agencies sponsored and financed by capitalist foundations and governments. The idea that such imperialist institutions will act as friends of migrant workers is worse than a myth—it means siding with forces that represent the class enemies of China’s working people.

In the course of their struggles, some migrants—for example, the 12,000 mainly women workers who staged a series of strikes against Uniden, a Japanese electronics firm, in 2005—have demanded the right to form their own, independent trade unions. The struggle for unions free of bureaucratic control is important for China’s embattled working people, but defense of the workers state that issued out of the 1949 Revolution must be a guiding principle in this fight. This is especially important given the maneuvers of pro-capitalist forces who promote so-called “independent unions” in the name of Western-style “democracy”—i.e., the rule of the capitalist exploiters with a parliamentary facade.

The imperialists and their labor lieutenants seek to channel the just struggles of workers in China in such a counterrevolutionary direction. Among the forces they have championed is the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB), whose leading figure, Han Dongfang, has had a regular program on the CIA-funded Radio Free Asia, where he postures as a defender of Chinese workers. More recently, citing the new labor law, CLB has called for people to work inside the official ACFTU unions. The political program pursued by Han and his ilk does not serve the interests of the Chinese proletariat but rather the forces of renewed imperialist subjugation and exploitation. The kind of union that he and his handlers would like to build is often compared to Polish Solidarność. This self-styled “free trade union,” supported by Washington and the Vatican, spearheaded the capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet sphere in the 1980s. After coming to power in 1989, the Solidarność regime presided over the restoration of brutal capitalist exploitation, devastating the livelihoods and living standards of the working class—particularly women workers—and launching a frontal assault on women’s rights, including a near total ban on abortion.

Various reformist groups internationally give “left” cover to such flagrantly pro-capitalist forces. Thus the French Lutte Ouvrière (LO) invited an official CLB spokesman, Cai Chongguo, to address a forum at its annual Fête near Paris in May 2007. International Communist League comrades intervened there to denounce LO’s invitation to this counterrevolutionary and its history of support to Solidarność and other pro-imperialist forces in the USSR and East Europe.

Even more blatant is the British-based Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) led by Peter Taaffe, which maintains the China Worker Web site. The CWI calls for a “democratic socialist alternative” to the CCP regime. What this means in practice is shown by the CWI’s participation in a 4 June 2008 “pro-democracy” rally called by openly pro-capitalist forces in Hong Kong, ostensibly to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China Worker’s report (6 June 2008) hailed this “excellent mobilisation” and quoted uncritically the speech by its organizers, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, an outfit whose “operational goals” include the call for “a democratic China.”

In Britain and other imperialist countries, the CWI acts as rank social democrats, pushing illusions in bourgeois parliamentarism—the dictatorship of the exploiters in “democratic” guise. Transplanted to a workers state, this becomes a program for counterrevolution, as shown in the Taaffeites’ hailing the Solidarność “union” in Poland 1981. In 1991 they were on Boris Yeltsin’s barricades when he ushered in the period of open capitalist counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union. Ever since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, social democracy has condemned the workers states in the name of “democracy.” The CWI’s ideological progenitor, the German “left” Social Democrat Karl Kautsky, railed against the proletarian dictatorship and propagated the illusion of “pure democracy.” For Marxists, the question is always democracy for which class? As Lenin emphasized, the fight to liberate the working class means a fight for “the new, proletarian, democracy which must replace bourgeois democracy and the parliamentary system” (Lenin, “Resolution to the Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” March 1919).

Taaffe claims that “The tasks facing workers in China today are a confirmation in a new and original form of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution,” and calls “to link the struggle for democratic rights with the struggle for socialism” (“China at the Crossroads,” China Worker online, 24 May 2007). This is an outrageous falsification of Trotsky’s theory—recasting the permanent revolution in “democratic” capitalist guise, applying it to a workers state, then turning it into a call for “democratic” counterrevolution! The fight for authentic Leninist-Trotskyist leadership and a proletarian political revolution in China is premised on unconditional military defense of the workers state against the forces of counterrevolution.

For Proletarian Revolutionary Leadership

The Chinese bureaucracy’s accommodation to world imperialism has proceeded from the false postulate that if it can “neutralize” the chances of military intervention through “peaceful coexistence,” then China can become a global superpower and indeed build “socialism in one country.” But the imperialists have weapons other than military ones: one of their central objectives is to undermine the Chinese government’s control over banking and currency movements. The huge balance-of-trade surpluses run up by China have created substantial pressures within American and some European ruling circles for anti-Chinese protectionism, a policy favored by the Democratic Party in the U.S. In China, the developing global economic downturn could ignite serious social struggle.

At some point, likely when bourgeois elements in and around the bureaucracy move to eliminate CCP political power, the explosive social tensions building up in Chinese society will shatter the political structure of the ruling bureaucratic caste. When that happens, China’s fate will be starkly posed. Either the workers will sweep away the parasitic ruling elite through a proletarian political revolution that defends and extends the gains of the 1949 Revolution and makes China a bastion of the struggle for world socialism, or capitalist counterrevolution will triumph, bringing back devastating imperialist subjugation and exploitation.

The potential for a pro-socialist workers uprising was shown in the May-June 1989 upheaval centered on Tiananmen Square. Protests that began among students opposing corruption and seeking political liberalization were joined by millions of workers across China, driven into action by their own grievances against the growing impact of the regime’s market measures, especially high inflation. Workers assemblies and motorized flying squads were thrown up, pointing to the potential for the emergence of authentic worker, soldier and peasant councils.

The entry into struggle of the working class terrified the CCP rulers, who eventually unleashed fierce repression. But the bureaucracy, including the officer corps, began to fracture under the impact of the proletarian upsurge. The first army units that were mobilized refused to act in the face of enormous popular support for the protests among Beijing’s working people. The massacres of June 1989, which overwhelmingly targeted the workers, could be carried out only after the regime brought in army units more loyal to Deng.

The ICL covered these events extensively in our press, calling to “Oust the Bureaucrats—For Lenin’s Communism! Workers and Soldiers Soviets Must Rule!” (See “Upheaval in China,” Workers Vanguard No. 478, 26 May 1989, and “Beijing Massacre—Civil War Looms,” Workers Vanguard No. 479, 9 June 1989.) A proletarian political revolution in China would have posed pointblank the need to defend and extend the social gains of the workers state against capitalist counterrevolution. What was missing was Leninist-Trotskyist leadership.

The role such a leadership would play was seen later that year in the upheaval in the German Democratic Republic (DDR), in no small part influenced by the heroic struggle of the Chinese workers and students. When the East German population rose up against bureaucratic privilege and mismanagement, the Stalinist regime began to disintegrate. Up to a million people rallied in mass protests, raising slogans such as “For communist ideals—No privileges.” The ICL undertook the biggest intervention in our history, fighting for workers and soldiers councils to be forged and to take power. The power of our Trotskyist program was shown in the 250,000-strong demonstration on 3 January 1990 against the fascist desecration of a monument honoring Soviet soldiers in East Berlin’s Treptow Park and in defense of the USSR and DDR. We initiated the call for this mobilization, which was taken up by the ruling Stalinist party because it feared how much our program resonated among East Berlin workers and felt compelled to mobilize its base. Treptow was a turning point; in the face of the developing potential of organized working-class resistance to counterrevolution, the Soviet bureaucracy under Mikhail Gorbachev moved rapidly to give a green light to capitalist reunification, and the DDR Stalinist regime followed suit.

Our fight for workers political revolution in the DDR combined with socialist revolution in West Germany—i.e., the revolutionary reunification of Germany—was a direct challenge to the sellout of the DDR to West German imperialism. As we wrote in our 1992 ICL conference document: “As Treptow later showed, from the beginning we were in a political struggle with the abdicating Stalinist regime over the future of the DDR…. Although shaped by the disproportion of forces, there was in fact a contest between the ICL program of political revolution and the Stalinist program of capitulation and counterrevolution” (“For the Communism of Lenin and Trotsky!”, Spartacist No. 47-48, Winter 1992-93). But we lacked the time and sufficient forces to sink the necessary roots into the working class. We lost, yet our intervention showed how, when an accumulation of events in a bureaucratically deformed workers state finally produces an upheaval and a crack in bureaucratic rule, it is possible for even a small Leninist-Trotskyist nucleus with a revolutionary internationalist program to have a massive impact.

In the struggle for proletarian political revolution in China, the fight for women’s liberation must be a central issue. A revolutionary workers and peasants government would expropriate the newly fledged class of Chinese capitalist entrepreneurs and renegotiate the terms of foreign investment in the interests of the working people, insisting, for example, that wages, benefits and working conditions for women and all workers are at least at the same level as in the state sector. It would put an end to bureaucratic arbitrariness and corruption. It would create a centrally planned and managed economy under conditions of proletarian democracy that would take measures to eliminate the unemployment that hits women workers particularly hard, and to provide a basic level of economic security for the whole population, while understanding that achieving material prosperity for all of China’s toilers hinges on the struggle to shatter the grip of imperialism worldwide.

The fight for a Leninist-Trotskyist party in China means a fight to revive the liberating and internationalist Marxism that animated Chen Duxiu and the other founders of the Chinese Communist Party, whose starting point was the world struggle for socialist revolution. In sharp contrast to the Stalinists’ glorification of the family, Trotskyists understand that the complete emancipation of women can come only with the advent of a global communist society that marks an end to material scarcity once and for all. Women will then be full participants in an undreamed-of emancipation of human potential and a monumental forward surge of civilization. As Marx and Engels pointed out more than 160 years ago, “‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse” (The German Ideology [1846]).

A proletarian political revolution in China raising the banner of socialist internationalism would shake the world, not least capitalist Taiwan. It would shatter the “death of communism” ideological climate propagated by the imperialist rulers since the destruction of the USSR. It would radicalize the working class of Japan, the industrial powerhouse and would-be imperialist overlord of Asia, and spark a fight for the revolutionary reunification of Korea through political revolution in the deformed workers state in the North and socialist revolution in the capitalist South. It would reverberate among the masses of the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and beyond, including southern Africa and the imperialist heartlands of North America and West Europe. And it would reignite the struggle for socialist revolution in the ex-Soviet Union and in East Europe, where the ravages of counterrevolution produced a social catastrophe of ruin, disease and barbarism, resulting in a dramatic plunge in life expectancy. It is to give leadership to such struggles that the ICL fights to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution. For women’s liberation through world socialist revolution!


It should be noted that the figure for the number of people killed in the 1965 anti-Communist bloodbath in Indonesia is over one million, not “over half a million” as stated in the article “Women Workers and the Contradictions of China Today.” (From Spartacist [English edition] No. 62, Spring 2011.)


English Spartacist No. 60

ESp 61

Spring 2009


Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!

Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics


Against Apologists for the Treachery of the POUM, Then and Now

Trotskyism vs. Popular Frontism in the Spanish Civil War


Women Workers and the Contradictions of China Today

Defend China Against Imperialism, Counterrevolution!
For Workers Political Revolution!

(Women and Revolution Pages)


Gérard Le Méteil, 1959–2007