A contemporary history of China (Part III): precarious power


The post-1979 era of ‘opening and reform’ opened China’s economy to global capital. Since then the State has been managing this process to ensure its own political legitimacy and stability. As such it fuels a populist nationalism, embedded with anti-American and anti-Japanese feeling, and a neoconservative nostalgia for the past. Moreover, although Confucianism was rejected under Mao, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since pursued a spiritual moralisation and harmonisation programme known as ‘new Confucianism’, in which “Confucius [has been] turned, through an extraordinary sleight of hand, into an advocate of profit and economic growth” (Mitter, 2005, page 295).

From the early 1990s, the pace and intensity of economic growth in China has been extraordinary. There has been a dramatic proliferation of rural migrants and consumer goods into the urban domain – stirring up two phenomena. On the one hand, there is the significant growth of labour unrest, which is the only political force capable of threatening State power. See my pieces, Chinese workers fight for democracy and China’s new worker militants, for more on this. On the other hand, there is a crisis of culture, particularly among China’s new (sociological) middle class. Wang (in Rosen, 2004) refers to an apolitical, material-seeking, ‘post-communist personality’ that rejects life under Mao and reflects the CCP’s drive for wealth. This, I suggest, operates in contradictory conjunction with what Yang (in Schein, 1999) identifies as a micro-political, ‘counterstate individualism’ expressed through consumerism.

History redux: the case of Shanghai

The city of Shanghai is worth briefly exploring to grasp the contemporary nature of a rapidly globalising, developing and urbanising China.

The city’s evolution is commonly identified through three main periods, commencing with the 1842-1945 imperial era. From a fishing village, the Nanking Treaty of 1842 established Shanghai as a major treaty port, attracting an influx of foreign capital and key imperial powers to transform it into a major financial and trade centre of the Far East and one of the leading cities in the world. Under the treaty-port system the city was divided into two wealthy foreign-run districts (which developed, at that time, the most advanced urban amenities in Asia, with the exception of Tokyo) and an impoverished Chinese municipality. These socio-economic districts, to this day, are apparent in the urban landscape: with the Western-style boulevards of the International Settlement and French Concession, known then and now as the ‘high corner’, and the industrial centres and shantytowns of the Chinese municipality, the ‘low corner’ (Wu, 1999, 2002; Wu and Li, 2005).

During this imperial era, Shanghai gained a reputation as ‘the Paris of the East’, ‘the bright pearl of the Orient’ and ‘the paradise of adventures’, and the Shanghaiese as natural entrepreneurs (Farrer, 2002; Zhang, 2002). Bickers (2004: 39-40) comments of the high corner of Shanghai in 1919:

This was a rhapsody to light, to modernity, style, display and opulence. […] Shanghai was not only a city of wealth, but a city unashamed of displaying wealth. […] East didn’t meet West in Shanghai: Russia met Britain, Japan met Portugal, India met France, and all met in China. And China met China there too. New China met ‘Old China’ […].

Furthermore, Shanghai had the repute as ‘the whore of Asia’ (Farrer, 2002) – with foreigners in the city sensitive to its association with bars and brothels.

In marked contrast then, the subsequent 1949-1976 Maoist era saw the end of this so-called Western decadence as the city’s doors were closed. Shanghai became one of China’s major industrial bases and ‘cash cows’ (meaning a significant proportion of its annual revenue was siphoned off for central government). The establishment of a number of work-units (compact, self-contained areas in the city) typified where many ordinary Shanghaiese both worked and lived.

The post-1979 opening and reform era has been shaped by a decentralisation (not a decline) of state power, the emergence of non-state economic players, and a new economic structure based on tertiary industries and a rationalised selection of primary ones (Han, 2000; Wu, 2003a). While the engines of the country’s early economic growth during the 1980s were the special economic zones (SEZs) in southern China, Shanghai itself was held back until the beginning of the 1990s (central government preferring instead to maintain the city as a reliable cash cow). In response to the international fallout of the 1989 military suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprisings, i.e., the easing of foreign capital to China, the CCP reasserted its commitment, symbolic and real, to opening and reform by announcing in 1990 the designation of its largest SEZ at that point in Pudong, east of Shanghai’s Huangpu River. This was twinned with the state’s ambition to make Shanghai China’s first global city (an international economic, financial and trade centre) (Han, 2000; Wu, 2003a).


View from Shanghai over to Pudong. (Photograph by Bassi)

Since the 1990s Shanghai has undergone an economic and building boom, which, in scale and pace, has arguably been exceptional in the history of global capitalism. The dominant symbols of the city are those of Western cultural commodities (Wu, 2003b). The city’s government has drawn upon the past imperial discourse of Shanghai as ‘Paris of the Orient’ in order to promote the place globally as a reawakening hub of entrepreneurialism, which is rediscovering and rekindling its internationalism and cosmopolitanism and restoring its place in the world order (Wu, 2003a, 2003b). Sensationalist journalism in the 1990s pitched the city as the ‘Far Eastern Promise’, ‘The Shanghai Bubble’ and the ‘Field of Dreams’ (Wu, 2003b). The target for its economy is to develop the largest trade and retail centre in China, as well as real estate, information services and tourism (Han, 2000). Shanghai has been marketed as a city of work and a city at play (Wu, 2003a), with the local government strategy to “create an internationalized and attractive image to global capital” (He and Wu, 2007:207). One consequence being that “the demand for pursuing exchange value overwhelms the demand for maintaining the everyday use value of old urban neighbourhoods”, so, notably, residential displacement (of poor people) from the inner city to the suburbs has been vast (Han, 2000; He and Wu, 2007:207; Zhang, 2002). Another consequence is the acute exploitation of labour-power, in particular, of the city’s millions of rural migrants.


The Old City, Shanghai. (Photograph by Bassi)

Rural migrants and the hukou

Rural migrants, because of the hukou or household registration system, work without basic legal rights and welfare benefits in China’s cities, since the hukou restricts such rights and benefits to one’s place of origin. The Financial Times (2013) estimates that there are 260 million rural migrant workers in China’s cities, which brings the total proportion of the population living in cities to 52.57%. 35.29% of the population have urban hukou. The idea of scrapping the hukou is resisted by local and central government as it is seen as economically burdensome. Minor reform to the hukou has led to some concessions, but this literally comes at a cost (for example, access to schooling at a fee higher than for city residents). The hukou effectively makes rural migrants second-class citizens and especially precarious workers. This has not stopped significant numbers of rural migrants from protesting for better conditions of existence.

China Labour Bulletin reports that the workers’ movement in China, during the period of 2009-2011, was revitalised by a new generation of migrant workers demanding better pay and working conditions:

 These young activists have not only won noticeable concessions from their employers, they have also forced the government and trade unions to reassess their labour and social policies.

In December 2013 the CCP detailed a plan to ‘abolish’ the hukou, which is part of its wider ambition to drive forth with urbanisation in order to boost domestic demand for goods and services as both export-led growth and investment in infrastructure have slowed. However, while:

… China will continue to emphasize the growth and development of “small cities” by removing hukou restrictions for these underdeveloped areas. … “megacities” like Beijing and Shanghai will likely continue to have strict limitations on hukous in a bid to fight overcrowding and rising housing costs. (Tiezzi, 2013)


As China’s economy has grown, so too has both inequality and the visibility of inequality, such that anger against the super-rich and Party corruption is commonplace. In addition to an increased militarisation of labour movement unrest, political protests around land grabs, lack of affordable housing, environmental damage (albeit with an element of NIMBY-ism), and unsafe food and water are on the rise. The Party clings to power by relying on a combination of nationalism and economic growth (the latter of which has been decelerating of late). The omnipresence of the totalitarian hand of the State continually threatens the closure of outlets of resistance. Today’s China (like yesterday’s China) is one where the Party can ‘make disappear’ its critics. And yet the struggle continues, courageously unabated.


Bickers, R. (2004) Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. London: Penguin

Farrer, J. (2002) Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

Han, S. (2000) ‘Shanghai between State and Market in Urban Transformation’ Urban Studies 37(11): 2091-2112

He, S. and Wu, F. (2007) ‘Socio-spatial impacts of property-led redevelopment on China’s urban neighbourhoods’ Cities 24(3): 194-208

Hornby, L (2013) Human cost of China’s hukou system. Financial Times, November 8.

Mitter, R. (2005) Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rosen, S. (2004) ‘The state of youth/youth and the state in early 21st-century China’ in Hays Gries, P. and Rosen, S. (eds.) State and Society in 21st-century China: Crisis, contention, and legitimation. London: Routledge

Schein, L. (1999) ‘Of cargo and satellites: imagined cosmopolitanism’ Postcolonial Studies 2(3): 345-375

Tiezzi, S. (2013) China’s New Urbanization Plan. The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/chinas-new-urbanization-plan/

Wu, F. and Li, Z. (2005) ‘Sociospatial Differentiation: Process and Spaces in Subdistricts of Shanghai’ Urban Geography 26(2): 137-166

Wu, F. (2003a) ‘The (Post-) Socialist Entrepreneurial City as a State Project: Shanghai’s Reglobalisation in Question’ Urban Studies 40(9): 1673-1698

Wu, F. (2003b) ‘Globalization, Place Promotion and Urban Development in Shanghai’ Journal of Urban Affairs 25(1): 55-78

Wu, F. (2002) ‘Sociospatial differentiation in urban China: evidence from Shanghai’s real estate markets’ Environment and Planning A 34: 1591-1615

Wu, F. (1999) ‘City profile: Shanghai’ Cities 16(3): 207-216

Zhang, T. (2002) ‘Urban Development and a Socialist Pro-Growth Coalition in Shanghai’ Urban Affairs Review 37: 475-499

A contemporary history of China (Part II): post-Mao


It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. Deng Xiaoping

In the second of three articles overviewing a recent history of China, I review the era of Deng Xiaoping.

That the successor to Mao Zedong as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to be both a pragmatist and a loyal Party official, who had been there right from the start of the CCP’s rule, is telling in terms of China’s modern political economy. Deng Xiaoping launched the era known as ‘opening and reform’, which in the 1980s laid the foundations for what was to become a phenomenal pace and rate of economic growth from 1990 onwards. Deng also oversaw the brutal suppression of China’s democratic revolution. ‘Opening and reform’ meant economic opening and reform, with little or no political concessions; and yet such opening and reform created conditions and spurred aspirations for political change.

The era after Mao’s death marked a dramatic new period for China – one of incredible change. The backdrop to this was the legacy of Mao: the Anti-Rightist Movement that shutdown the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the epic failure, farce and mass death of the Great Leap Forward, and the political terror and annihilation of the Cultural Revolution. The promise to transform a country with one in four of the world’s population into an economic powerhouse, and for the benefit of all, failed spectacularly. Deng Xiaoping represented a turn in the CCP toward a form of economic realism and political idealism: the country’s economy would be reformed and opened up to outside world trade while the political authority of the Party remained absolute.

The Democracy Wall Movement

The first indication of the tension and struggle embedded in China’s new political economy was demonstrated in the Democracy Wall of Beijing that began in the summer of 1978.

As a vent to the ordeal of and anger about the Cultural Revolution, the Democracy Wall Movement of 1978-79 was, literally, a wall for people to publically put up their democratic opposition. The Wall included Huang Xiang’s poem, “The Fire God Symphony”:

Why can one man control the wills of millions of people

Why can one man prescribe life and death everywhere

Why should we bow and worship an idol

Letting blind faith confine our will to live, our thoughts and emotions


Let man be restored to his dignity

Let life become life once again

Let music and virtue be the soul’s inner essence

Let beauty and nature be man’s once again (Source: http://diogenesii.wordpress.com/tag/huang-xiang/)

The movement was fuelled by ambiguous reports in the Party newspaper, People’s Daily, which implied it had Deng Xiaoping’s support. Deng officially took post in December 1978.

By the end of January 1979, Deng had made plain his ambition to modernise China by making it part of the world economy. He became the first CCP leader to visit the United States. Concurrently, as the Democracy Wall Movement spread to other cities in China, he commissioned its shutdown. Huang Xiang later reflected on the movement’s significance:

We “set fire” on Wangfujing Avenue in Beijing. Myself and my three friends, Li Jiahua, Fang Jiahua, and Mo Jiangang, put up my poem “The Fire God Symphony” in big character posters. This first batch of posters lit a spark for seeking enlightenment and freedom in Communist China. We founded and published the first independent periodical ever, called Enlightenment, and staged a poetic campaign to advocate human rights and freedom of expression. (Source: http://diogenesii.wordpress.com/tag/huang-xiang/)

One Child Policy

The everyday, pervasive level of China’s political economy, i.e. the degree to which it seized control of people’s lives, is best illustrated by the introduction of the One Child Policy in 1979. The One Child Policy was essentially the State regulation of women’s bodies, and the motivation was essentially political economic in that the population needed controlling to minimise social, economic and environmental resource problems.

In crude terms, the policy was a success in curbing population growth. However, it has fuelled a war on women and girls: China’s sex imbalance ratio is extraordinary and alarming, with evidence of female foeticide and infanticide, and the mistreatment and abandonment of girls. In an article by The Economist (2010) titled “The worldwide war on baby girls”, it is noted that by 2020 China will have 30 to 40 million more young men (of 19 or under) than young women, which would be the equivalent of the entire young male population of the USA.

Bedrock of China’s economic growth

The designation of four Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in southern China – Xiamen, Shantou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai – ultimately provided the key to China’s economic success. Within these four SEZs infrastructure was rapidly put in place and capital investment from foreign companies flowed in, with the pull of government financial incentives and cheap and ‘docile’ (i.e., unorganised) labour. In-migration from the vast rural hinterland was driven by the promise of better wages and living conditions. Trade in the 1980s was mostly with Taiwan and Hong Kong. These four SEZs boomed, in particular, Shenzhen. The CCP proceeded to open its coastal areas to 14 more SEZs. In brief, China commenced its export-led economic growth, which, while in the 1980s was modest, paved the way for a staggering pace and rate of growth by the 1990s.

A balancing act

Two things illustrate the spin by the Party of ‘socialist’ ideals and capitalist realism: the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution and the question of Hong Kong. The unease of some within the CCP with the so-called marriage of socialism and capitalism and with the material-seeking, money-orientated youth of Hong Kong, spurred the 1983 Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution. This was, effectively, a well-publicised clampdown on smuggling, pornography, and prostitution. That said, coming at a time when the SEZs were attracting in foreign investment, and given a consequence of the campaign was to deter much of this investment, the campaign was phased out.

By the time Britain’s post-colonial lease on Hong Kong expired in 1987, Deng had declared “One Country, Two Systems” in order to manage the innate contradictions of its political economy. But appeasing Party hardliners was one thing, the aspirations of students and workers was another.

1989 Tiananmen

The full story of the Tiananmen revolutionary uprising cannot be covered here, suffice to say that it remains the greatest challenge to CCP rule to date. The protests, which started in Beijing and centred on Tiananmen Square, escalated and spread to other cities.

Whilst students led an encampment in Tiananmen Square, it was ultimately the intervention of the working class that made a difference. As Harry Glass notes in a former Workers’ Liberty publication:

At the beginning of the protests in May 1989, students did not generally seek working class support, confining the workers’ headquarters to the far side of the square until the end of the month. But as the students were pulled towards the internal machinations of the ruling party, backing the “reformist” faction within the bureaucracy, the workers struck out on the road to independence. One of the first signs came on 15 May, when 70,000 steelworkers at the Capital steel plant struck in solidarity with the Beijing democracy movement. In fact, 1989 marked the rebirth of the working class as a powerful force in Chinese politics. The Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation began organising on 17 April, before coming out publicly on 18 May. Workers’ federations spread across many major cities, and incorporated steel workers, builders, bus drivers, machinists, railway workers and office staff. A small core of around 150 activists managed to register 20,000 workers in those five weeks, including workers in state-run factories such as Shougang (Capital Iron and Steel) and Yanshan Petrochemicals. They denounced the Communist regime as “this twentieth century Bastille, the last stronghold of Stalinism”. (Source: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/2202)

For those who remember it, the coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising left an impression of student radicalism – notably, the iconic image of the student standing in front of the tank – yet the legacy of Tiananmen was most deeply felt within the workers’ movement. After the announcement of martial law and the bloodstained massacre (the precise number of which will never be known, but was certainly hundreds, possibly thousands), the student movement declined while the workers’ movement grew.

General article source:

Zeitgeist Films (2007) “China: A Century of Revolution”.