Archive for March, 2011

adult PRC

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that

“. . . the party in its multifarious forms has continued to create a particular version of social and political reality that subverts others.  It has used (or, rather, enjoyed the political dividends of, since the party is not necessarily a conscious actor in this process) a seeming ‘democracy of images’ to reinforce its own primacy.  It backs up its image as a responsible ruling government with a range of rhetorical and representational devices that prey on popular culture, language, and images – just as it did, for example, during the Yan’an period.  Party adcult actively limits the spheres it attempts to appropriate, helps transform them into commercial or media clichés, and therefore desensitizes the public to their power” (252).  Are there any examples to support these assertions?

 Has the CCP used every trick in its (little red) book, including “party-ordained ideological conditioning” (238) and “party pedagogical advertising” (239) to subordinate “the sovereign rights of the individual” to “group economic rights” (238)?  Has party censorship lead to widespread “cultural isolation” (239)?  Are the party and state enterprises nefarious wolves disguised as sheep that cynically allowed “economic reforms” and “conspicuous consumption” to resuscitate the nation at the expense of “political reform”?  Dr. Barmé obviously thinks so, but he provides scant evidence to support his sweeping assertions, especially with respect to “corporate communism” (251-254).  He refers to “ideological practices” (251), “promotional positioning” (251), and “promotional tactics” (251), but fails to provide examples to support his claims. 

 As Dr. Barmé points out, “the imperative toward self-transformation has a venerable history in China” (240), and we are witnessing first-hand the “commercialization of [China’s] spirit” (241).  But he could not have imagined, writing in 1999, the extraordinary impact of economic reforms on Chinese society.  It would be interesting to learn his views today, when per capita GDP in China is 19% of per capita GDP in the United States, compared with only 4% when economic reform began just over 30 years ago.  Never in the course of human history have a larger number of people gained more wealth in such a short time.  Today, successful Chinese urbanites behind the wheel of their new BMWs, waiting in the drive-thru lane of McDonald’s, as well as lower income farmers and peasants hoping to build a new home and to see their children attend university, probably are more concerned with lifestyle issues rather than “the sovereign rights of the individual” (238).   

 China’s problems (corrupt officials, urban rich v. rural poor, environmental degradation, and increasing labor unrest, to name a few) should not be swept beneath a rug of consumer zeal, but we cannot deny that there is more choice in China now than there used to be.  The Chinese economy is booming, and there are many more options available to people with some ambition to succeed.  And where there is choice, there often is change for the better, and that includes the possibility of political change.  We are witnessing China’s social transition from a communist country toward a consumer society, which may eventually lead to a transition from a consumer society to a more egalitarian and democratic country.

The distribution of world incomes

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

“The history of global capitalism – if it could ever be written without the pervasive Western Europe-centric ballast that most of its forms carry – would have to be written mainly as the history of China’s and India’s global economic weight.  The recent, approximately 150-year history of the global ‘splendor’ of the ‘West’ would appear as a brief and relatively insignificant interlude.  Whether the most powerful actors in the ‘West,’ as well as the numerous organizational locations where the collective interests and actions of the ‘West’ are coordinated, have the moral, cultural, and political tools necessary to acknowledge the fact of this brevity and insignificance, and in what creative and peaceful institutional forms the ‘West’ will be able to exploit in order to adjust to the imminent end of its ‘splendor’ is, no doubt, one of the most fundamental questions of the survival of humankind” (100).  Wow.  Do you get the feeling that Dr. Böröcz doesn’t like the “West”?

      Dr. Böröcz is a big picture guy who buttresses his simplistic elevator analysis of the economic comings and goings of countries with impressive-sounding terms like global institutions, global geopolitics, global power, global strategy, global military significance, monolithic “law-like” institutional power, transnational global quasi-legal processes, global governance, global systems, global bargaining, global volume of speculative financial transactions, intergenerational imbalances, global violence, global mobility of states, alternative global organizations, and the global governance of economic accumulation.  And if we’re smart and pay close attention to his analysis, we’ll see that the West is doomed.

      Dr. Böröcz focuses on the rate of growth of countries’ GDP and concludes that the “global economic weight [of the West] is eroding” and that “the ‘engine’ of the world economy is neither in Western Europe nor in North America.  Instead, it has moved (back) to Asia” (102).  He goes on to predict the imminent “drastic shrinkage of [the West’s] economies in global terms” (102).  In order to prevent economic Armageddon in the West, Dr. Böröcz hints that there may be a conspiracy afoot, “pitting . . . the two engines of global growth, China and India, against each other” (101), and refers to “the creeping encirclement of both China and India” by the West during the “last decade” (102).  Should we call Oliver Stone and ask him to start the screenplay?

      As Dr. Böröcz correctly points out, “the global system is in a great flux” (100).  But he fails to acknowledge that despite the recent growth in the economies of China and India, they together account for less than 12% of the world’s total GDP compared to the United States and the European Union, which together account for approximately 50% of the total (according to statistics from the World Monetary Fund).  He ignores the dominant “economic weight” of the West and reaches the rather feeble conclusion that if China and India continue to grow and perhaps were to join forces by forming some sort of “development partnership” (104), the “character of the world will change – forever” (105).

      Before we pronounce the end of the West as we know it, perhaps Dr. Böröcz and other eminent sociologists would be wise to descend from their ivory towers of academia, fly to China, rent a car, drive out to various rural towns and provinces, and talk to some of the millions of impoverished peasants and workers who are fed up with their government and who represent a sleeping volcano of unrest that could very well erupt long before the West collapses.

Labor unrest in China

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

“It is not implausible to predict that the 2008 Labor Contract Law will likewise serve as the catalyst for a wave of labor militancy in China – especially if employers (as is likely) attempt to evade the law and if the arbitration system becomes too burdened with cases to be able to resolve workers’ grievances quickly, encouraging them to turn instead to direct action” (177).

      These measures (the Labor Contract Law that went into effect on 1 January 2008 and the Arbitration Law that went into effect in May 2008) have helped up to a point, but why is the Chinese government not taking a more proactive role in resolving workers’ widespread grievances, especially in light of recent strikes and protests?

      The laws enacted in 2008 were intended to channel worker frustrations through a system of arbitration and courts so no broader protest movements would threaten political stability.  According to an article in The New York Times on 20 June 2010, the labor laws have raised expectations but Chinese workers remain relatively powerless by Western standards.  Civil courts and arbitration committees, which are made up of government employees, have been overwhelmed by a flood of labor cases.  In addition, China’s economic reform and development has created an almost unbreakable alliance between business and government.  According to a report issued in October 2010 by China Labour Bulletin, local officials stand to benefit economically and politically from sustained growth and development in their jurisdiction, and many have a direct interest in the economic success of local enterprises through the ownership of shares or other monetary arrangements, such as excessive taxation, arbitrary fees, and bribes.  Consequently, lax enforcement by local officials often allows companies to evade compliance with labor laws, especially with regard to minimum wage requirements and overtime pay.  The ability of the 2008 laws to protect workers’ rights is constrained by the continual push for economic growth, the over-supply of labor, the overwhelming power of capital, and the widespread collusion between business and government.

      It seems that in order to avoid the costly strikes and demonstrations that occurred at several factories last summer, the CCP and government must acknowledge and accept the reality of labor relations in China today; namely, that the interests of labor and management not only have diverged but also have coalesced into opposition and conflict.  The government needs to entitle and empower the workforce to engage in collective bargaining.  But if and when new regulations are implemented, the government will have to be scrupulous in its enforcement of the law.  By establishing a system to proactively resolve the grievances that underlie growing worker militancy, the Chinese government can achieve the labor peace essential to its official goals of “harmony” and “stability.”  In addition, pay increases and improved working conditions will help China to develop its own, more prosperous working class, thereby increasing domestic consumption and reducing the country’s reliance on exports for economic growth.

      The authors were too timid in referring to the possibility of “China becoming the epicenter of world labor unrest . . . in the coming decade” (177).  It would appear that China already has reached that point, and labor unrest will certainly intensify until the government can develop and implement its own form of “social contract” between employers, workers, and the state.

Capitalism in China

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

“While it is too optimistic, as Silver and Arrighi have claimed, to say that ‘China appears to be emerging as the only poor country that has any chance in the foreseeable future of subverting the Western-dominated global hierarchy of wealth’. . .” (63). Why is it too optimistic?

     Sociologists have not kept pace with China’s burgeoning economy and rapidly changing social structure.  Clearly, Dr. So is correct when he refers to the future “imperial path” that China will continue to take: “State developmentalism has become so successful that it has greatly empowered the Chinese nation in the world economy” (62).  Why should they change course?  As much as the West hates to admit it, China has very quickly emerged as a formidable world economic power.  During the last five years, China’s economic growth probably has surpassed every country in the world.  According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the country’s Gross Domestic Product increased at an average annual rate of almost 13% during the five years ended December 31, 2010.  It is difficult to argue with success.

     Obviously, China’s economic success has come at the expense of liberty.  The freedom we enjoy in the West probably will never be duplicated in China.  On the other hand, China never experiences the political gridlock characteristic of our government, which failed to prevent the near economic collapse that seems inconceivable in China.  China’s rulers have proven to be very resourceful and adaptable during the last 30 years.  As Dr. So correctly points out, “the Chinese experience is characterized by trial and error, midcourse corrections, and reversals of policy . . .” (62).  But China’s rulers seem to be aware of the possible negative consequences of rapid economic growth, which is why they implemented in 2006 a “new policy of ‘building a new socialist countryside’ and a ‘harmonious society’” (55).  If the Chinese state can effectively balance economic growth and modernization (infrastructure) with social development and worker benefits (health care, education, increased wages, improved working conditions, retirement benefits, etc.), China could very well eclipse the United States during the 21st century and dominate the world stage.

     The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited intelligent flexibility in spurring the country forward, an “ongoing process” that seems to be working.  But if allowed to spiral out of control, labor unrest could derail China’s economic engine, which has been fueled by cheap labor, no independent unions, and a seemingly bottomless pool of impoverished migrant laborers.  Last summer, employers (mostly foreign companies) responded to a spate of wildcat strikes and protests by selectively increasing wages and improving benefits for workers, who are more aware of their rights and more willing to stand up for their rights.  Eventually, however, it appears that the central government will have to intervene to establish a nation-wide minimum “living” wage and a formal process of collective bargaining between labor and management.  Otherwise, increasing social instability will undermine prospects for continuing economic growth.