Xi Jinping’s important speech on trade unions and workers

It is at times difficult to keep up with these position papers by Xi Jinping. A couple of weeks ago he directly addressed workers at a meeting (29 October 2018) of new trade union leaders. I have yet to find an English translation, since not all are translated immediately, so here is a summary from the State Council website that was widely circulated in Chinese news services. Obviously, with socialism in power, the relationship between the communist party, trade unions and workers moves in new directions.

BEIJING — Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, called for mobilizing the country’s hundreds of millions of workers to make accomplishments in the new era and break new ground in the cause of the workers’ movement and trade unions’ work.

Xi, also president and chairman of the Central Military Commission, made the remarks during a talk with the new leadership of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) on Oct 29.

The Workers’ movement is an important part of the cause of the Party, while trade unions’ work is a regular and fundamental job for the Party’s governance, Xi said.

He urged upholding Party leadership over trade unions’ work, mobilizing hundreds of millions of workers to make accomplishments in the new era, strengthening ideological and political guidance for employees, and advancing reforms and innovations in trade unions’ work.

He told the ACFTU leadership to be brave to shoulder responsibilities, be enterprising and active, and make solid efforts to break new ground in the cause of workers’ movement and trade unions’ work in the new era.

Wang Huning, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and a member of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee, joined the talk.

Xi, on behalf of the CPC Central Committee, congratulated the new leadership on the success of the 17th National Congress of the ACFTU and greeted workers, model workers and trade union workers of all ethnic groups.

Commenting on the work of the ACFTU and trade unions at all levels in the past five years, Xi said they made a lot of productive efforts in strengthening political guidance for workers, organizing employees’ work, protecting workers’ rights and interests, keeping the team of employees stable, deepening trade union reforms and innovations, and advancing Party building in the trade union system.

Trade unions should be loyal to the Party’s cause and put the principle of upholding Party leadership and the Chinese socialist system into the practice of workers, Xi said.

He stressed upholding the authority and centralized, unified leadership of the CPC Central Committee, and closely following political stance, direction, principle and path of the committee.

Trade unions should improve their ability to apply the Marxist stance, viewpoint and method to analyze and solve problems, he said.

They should align the firm implementation of the Party’s will with effective efforts to serve the workers, he said.

Xi said the working class should be fully utilized as the main force to accomplish the targets proposed at the 19th CPC National Congress.

He encouraged the country’s workers to devote themselves to their jobs, strive for excellence, and make unremitting efforts to create a happy life and a bright future.

Various competitions should be held with the theme of fostering new development philosophy, promoting high-quality development and building a modernized economy, he said. Faster work should be done to build a team of knowledgeable, skillful and innovative industrial workers, he said.

He also demanded efforts to cultivate more model and highly-skilled workers.

It is the political responsibility of trade unions to guide employees and the people in following the Party, and consolidate the class foundation and public support for the Party’s governance, Xi said. Although the times have changed, the work method of coming from the people and going to the people should not be changed, he said.

Trade unions should adapt to new situations and new tasks, he said. They should improve and strengthen ideological and political work for workers, and make more efforts to inspire the country’s workers to embrace shared ideals, convictions, values and moral standards, Xi said.

Rural workers should be included in trade unions to the largest extent to make them a new staunch and reliable force behind the working class, he said.

Online work should be taken as an important platform for trade unions to link and serve the workers and to raise their penetration, guidance and influence, he said.

Trade unions should adhere to the employee-centered working approach; focus on the most pressing, most immediate issues that concern the employees the most; and fulfill the obligation of safeguarding workers’ rights and interests and sincerely serving workers and the people, Xi said.

Work should also be done to help urban employees in difficulties out of trouble and offer timely assistance to employees who returned to poverty for different reasons, he said.

As the reform of trade unions is an important component of deepening overall reform, trade unions should meet the new requirements on reforming people’s organizations and create a working system of extensive connection to serve the workers, Xi said.

More strength and resources should be put into the community level to unite all workers around the Party, he said.

Meanwhile, the country will reinforce the education, management and supervision of trade union cadres, and improve the mechanism of linking the Party with workers and the people, he said.

Party committees and governments at all levels must implement the Party’s principle of wholeheartedly relying on the working class, and ensure the status of the working class as the master, Xi said.

The country should also improve and strengthen the Party’s leadership on the work of trade unions, move to resolve major problems in the work of those unions, build a quality and professional team of trade union cadres, and support the creative work of trade unions in accordance with laws and regulations, he added.

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What About the Chinese Workers?

A question I am asked from time to time when talking about Chinese Marxism is: what about the workers?

The short answer is that 700-800 million of them have been lifted out of poverty in the last 40 years – the time of ‘the reform and opening up’ initiated by Deng Xiaoping.

The long answer requires some more detail.

The question with which I began often implies a certain potted narrative: once upon a time, the workers were treated well, with the ‘Iron Rice Bowl’ (not originally a Chinese term) providing full employment and cradle-to-grave support. But then everything was turned on its head with the ‘reform and opening up’. Workers were treated badly, lost their jobs and the communist party morphed into yet another exploiting ruling class.

The problem with this assumed narrative is not so much its mixture of half-truths and distortions, but more its underlying assumptions and deliberate neglect of crucial facts.

To begin with, it assumes a ‘Eurofied’ Marxism, in which the working class is well-developed in the context of an over-ripe capitalist market economy. Marxism is thus supposed to be all about the working class – the proletariat – and a communist revolution will be driven by them.

The catch is that the successful communist revolutions happened in places that did not have a large or well-developed working class. Instead, they had a vast majority of peasants. What was to be done?

The first real effort can be dated back to Engels’s often neglected piece from 1882, ‘The Mark’.  Here he recovers the old practice of subsistence survival economics, in which the land was held in common, reallocated on a regular basis, and in which pasture lands and forests were common land. The trace of all this Engels finds in the German ‘mark’. Crucially, he ends the piece with a call to recover at a whole new dialectical level this version of rural communism. He closes the piece with these words: ‘Think well on it, German peasants. Only the Social-Democrats can help you’ (MECW 24: 456). In other words, the communists are the real friends of the peasants.

Despite this insight, the first successful revolution in Russia struggled to come to terms with the peasants. The revolution happened in the cities, based on the fledgling working class and it was only with significant struggle and not a little disruption (in the 1930s) that the peasants became collective farm workers in the new class formations under socialism.

How is all this relevant for China?

There too the initial communist movement focused on the small number of workers, leading to the failed revolution of early 1927. In reply, it was Mao’s breakthrough to pick up some of the emphases from Engels, Lenin and Stalin and focus on the peasants as the core of the communist movement. With the Nanchang Uprising on 1 August  1927 – the first successful armed insurrection of the Chinese Revolution mounted in response to the Shanghai massacre – Mao had already organised a red base with peasants in the nearby Jinggang mountains. The fabled meeting there between him and Zhu De’s armed force from Nanchang marks the origin of the Red Army.

Let me push this a little further. For Mao and the others, it was not so much a combination of workers and peasants, but the breakthrough that peasants too are workers, rural workers. As a result, the communist movement massively expanded its base.

Even so, this is only a beginning. The initial phase after 1949 relied heavily on the model of the Soviet Union: planned economy; full collectivisation of agriculture; a socialist offensive that would lift China into an industrial superpower (Great Leap Forward and so on). The catch was that Mao’s policies tended to focus on the relations of production, with radical equality for all.

This is all very well, but it is only one half of the equation. The other concerns the means of production. The problem that remained was that the economic condition of the vast majority improved only marginally and at a very slow pace.

It was Deng Xiaoping’s insight that the means of production needed attention, that socialism is as much about improving the socio-economic conditions of the rural and urban workers. Hence the reform and opening up and the transformation into a socialist market economy.

Along the way, mistakes were made and new contradictions arose (as Mao has already foreseen in 1937). These included the breaking up of the inefficient collective conglomerates (more Owenite cooperatives than full communes), some workers losing their jobs, protests by workers against conditions and law-breaking management, the absence for a time of adequate medical care in rural areas, parents leaving children under the care of grandparents in order to work in cities. But the mistakes and contradictions were not insuperable. Workers have been compensated, protests listened to (since they routinely invoke the communist tradition) and managers who break the law punished, all people now covered by medical insurance as well as old-age pension. Above all, a concerted and well-honed effort continues to deal with rural poverty.

All of this brings me to the final point: during the time of the reform and opening up, between 700 and 800 million have been lifted out of poverty. The Chinese prefer the lower figure, since the standard required is higher than international standards.

Not only has this been designated as the greatest human rights achievement in memory, but it is precisely workers – urban and rural – who have been lifted out of poverty.

As they like to say, without the Community Party there would be no new China.

Roll up your sleeves and get to work

I am working my way through Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China, enjoying especially a piece from 2013 called ‘Hard Work Makes Dreams Come True’. One of a number of statements on the Chinese Dream (which designates the xiaokang society), it addresses workers as the backbone of the party and the country. Here we find many good old communist themes – as with the book as a whole – such as the role of the working class, model workers and so forth.

The theme of hard work continues today in Xi Jinping’s statements, most recently in his new year’s address for 2017, where he called on all to ‘roll up your sleeves and get to work’ – sparking lines in pop songs, memes and images.