Some of the China-bashing that accompanied the Beijing Olympics was nothing short of nauseating.
George Bush took time out to chide China over its “detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious advocates”. But this came in the same week as his administration announced that it might ignore the sentences imposed on Guantanamo Bay detainees after their trials and keep them in jail indefinitely.
Granting Beijing the Olympics was part of the West’s strategy of “engagement” with China. Visiting Beijing last year, Olympics committee chief Jacques Rogge declared the Olympics would “have a big impact on China’s social environment—including human rights”. International scrutiny would force China to become more democratic, it was claimed.
But faith in the Olympics’ “positive role in helping the world’s changes” is completely misplaced. Every country hosting the games has used them as an opportunity to bolster nationalism and crack down on dissent. Sydney introduced anti-protest laws that made it an offence to even hand out a leaflet near Olympic venues. Host cities have frequently taken the opportunity to dispossess the poor and homeless. Before the US hosted the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta 30,000 poor and mostly African-American families were evicted from their homes when large housing blocks were bulldozed.
China too was not prepared to accept anything which would spoil the show it wanted to put on. For China’s rulers the games were “a celebration of China’s return as a great world power”, as the BBC put it.
Many mainstream commentators have argued that political engagement and bringing the Chinese economy into the world market would promote democratisation.
China’s rapid economic growth over the last twenty years has begun to upset the global balance of power. Many in the US ruling class fear China’s rise is a threat to their position of economic and military dominance. China’s economy has grown on average by almost 10 per cent a year since economic reforms in 1978, about three times the US’s average growth rate over the period. While its share of world output is still only 11 per cent compared to the US’s 21 per cent, this has risen from just 3 per cent in 1980.
But the hypocritical taunts about Chinese democracy by the US and its allies will do little to encourage China’s rulers to ease political repression.
Resistance inside China
On the other hand, opposition inside China to the regime does exist, despite the government’s maintenance of a police state. Although poverty has decreased, the country’s economic growth has come at a cost for ordinary workers and peasants.
The government’s own statistics show “mass incidents”—everything from petitioning to riots staged by the local population—increased to 74,000 in 2004 from 10,000 ten years earlier. After 2004 the government stopped releasing the figures.
Many of these are protests by Chinese peasants, who suffer as a result of illegal taxes and widespread corruption among local government officials. The protest marches held by parents whose children were killed in May’s earthquake, often due to failure to enforce building standards, are a recent example. Although it did its best to end the protests, the Chinese government did not simply drive them off the streets. Instead it forced parents to accept compensation—showing that the state understands it cannot simply repress all dissent.
Workers’ protests are also not uncommon. Following the explosion of popular anger at Tiananmen Square in 1989 the government made concessions by introducing labour laws which gave workers basic protections. There is effective toleration for workers’ protests, so long as they remain limited to cost of living demands and do not spread beyond one workplace or involve ongoing organisation. In recent years occasional explosions of anger have pulled in tens of thousands of workers.
In 2002 around 2000 workers from one factory in Liaoyang and another 15,000 from other factories in the area joined a series of protests demanding unpaid wages and pensions. Over 10,000 workers protested demanding the right to an independent trade union at a Uniden factory in Shenzhen in 2005.
Democratic change in China relies on protests such as these coming together in a national movement on the scale of Tiananmen Square in 1989. These protests were led by students, and drew in workers who formed groups such as the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation. The ability of workers to strike and shut down production is a power that no government can simply repress. A victory against the regime will require that next time an explosion like Tiananmen Square has the working class at its centre.
By James Supple