China on the Capitalist Road

China on the Capitalist Road

In 2005, China experienced more than seventy five thousand public protests in rural villages and urban factories. These bursts of discontent appear to have made a deep impression on China’s party leaders. As in nineteenth-century Europe, the specter of revolution calls forth reform. But the capitalist road has lots of twists and turns. A recent trip to Beijing presented a myriad of images:

A Hyundai factory with 1,100 young male workers privileged to work six twelve-hour shifts weekly on ultramodern assembly lines, producing five different car models
The Wal-Mart retail store in the University district with more red-shirted employees than shoppers
Posters in English warning that law breakers will be “severely punished”
A battered flatbed truck, piled high with folded cardboard boxes, blocking traffic in an old-style residential district
A Chinese professor systematically detailing the inadequacies of government unemployment statistics
A Japanese reporter dropping by the office of a nongovernmental organization devoted to civic education to interview an environmental activist funded by Western foundations
And, most unforgettably, entertainers clad in Russian army uniforms singing The Internationale at the request of American tourists at a popular Ukrainian restaurant/nightclub. (Our host, a Chinese native who had returned after decades in New York to work for an investment bank, raising corporate money for the education of the children of migrant workers, explained to us that the entertainers were former members of Russian military marching bands, for whom Beijing offered a better opportunity to make a living than postcommunist Ukraine.)

Most surprising of all in the seat of China’s national government was the openness with which people criticized China’s current position on the capitalist road. Now that the government has announced reform efforts to reduce rural poverty, end environmental degradation, raise the status of migrant workers, promote corporate social responsibility, strengthen labor unions, eliminate official corruption, and improve enforcement of labor laws, people freely criticize their country’s shortcomings.

The migrants who leave China’s impoverished rural areas have no citizenship rights in the cities, one activist explained to us. Under the hukuo system, their citizenship resides in their rural village of origin. When they come to the city to work, they have no access to full citizenship rights or to schools. If their employer fails to pay them (a not uncommon occurrence) their cases are not prosecuted the same way as citizens’ cases are. However, there are some lawyers and nongovernmental organizations that have set up worker centers to press the migrants’ claims. And the national government has urged urban administrations t...