In many discussions or arguments about the merits and flaws of communism, China is dragged into the frame as a classic example of how it doesn’t work (second only to the USSR). Such arguments are not exclusive to the right, but are often found amongst the left, especially from so-called anarchists. While we were not under the same illusions even before we entered the country, experiencing life in China has both confirmed our preconceptions, and also helped us develop more material and tangible examples of how China is not communist.

Before going to China I would try and explain to people through theory how China was at best an example of state capitalism (in that sense similar to the USSR). Such arguments are still crucial, but now I simply want to say “have you been to China?”. More than any theory, the reality in China demonstrates how far from communism it is.

So what would make a country communist? I could bang on about this for hours, but to keep it brief: a classless egalitarian society, where the means of production were in the hands of the workers, where production was run according to need not profit, where people gave according to their ability and received according to their needs. More than that, it would be a sustainable society that did not create and accentuate divisions between society and nature. It would be internationalist and support the right to self-determination whether on an individual (the way people express themselves) or state level (the right to self-governance). This last point is probably the most controversial even amongst socialists – who have been arguing about this for over a 100 years – but from my perspective this is a crucial tenant of communism. China fails from our experience to tick any of these boxes.

Is production in the hands of the workers? No! This in itself undermines any claims to it being a communist society. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to discuss the situation faced by workers with anyone, and this blog is really about our experience of China, so maybe we should simply remind you about the conditions in Foxconn factories (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/27/foxconn-suicide-tenth-iphone-china). One thing this Guardian article doesn’t really draw out is that instead of dealing with the material reasons why people are jumping to their deaths, they have put up “safety nets”. Does this really sounds like workers’ control?

While egalitarianism is clearly intertwined with ownership of production, our experience of the inequalities in China were a lot more banal. Beijing, like many large cities, obviously highlights this inequality. Grand glass structures, built for the rich and for tourists, stand side by side with hutongs (tiny back alleys), where people wash their clothes on the street outside their tiny, corrugated iron-roofed, concrete houses. Such inequality is not unsurprising, and similar though less stark scenes can be seen across the capitalist Western world, but China is meant to be communist and therefore such scenes should not be part of the landscape. Unless, of course, we understand that the similarities between all these countries are far greater than their differences.

Another example of evident class divide is the organisation of the trains. While in the UK there are 2 classes (first and second), China’s trains have a much more nuanced class categorisation, running from  soft sleeper (which is the best of the best) through hard-sleepers to hard seating. The latter can seat people for up to 18 hours and there are never enough seats for everyone, so some people simply sit in the alleys. Even within hard-sleeping class there is a triple-tiered system, where the lower your bed the more space you have and therefore the more you pay. Egalitarianism..?

The train system also highlights the individualistic mentality implanted in people. “If you get there first you win”, explained an English immigrant to China. This is demonstrated in the mad dash for the trains, which serves no obvious purpose other than to get your bags in a better place. But, trains are not the only space in which this occurs. Queuing generally follows this rule, as does driving. While no communist society has ever existed for long enough to test the mentality of the inhabitants, this competitive individualism is generally associated with a society which places such principles at its core, i.e. capitalism.

The rift between nature and society again highlights China’s lack of communist credentials. People might refer to the USSR and claim that they were communist and their environmental policy wasn’t all that great, but all I have room to say is “No soviets, No unions”. The West, especially the USA, obviously uses China as its scapegoat for not cutting its carbon emissions and I in no way wish to support this argument. Per person China pollutes significantly less than the West which is the only fair way to measure emissions. However, China is still incredibly destructive to the environment. If they continue on their current path of development, by the end of the century they will be producing significantly more CO2 per capita than the USA (the largest emitter by far in the world).  For an interesting discussion on Marxism and the environment check out J.B. Foster.

Finally, in terms of what we experienced, The Big One. Tibet. An interesting topic, not least because some members of the left (including the maverick Slavoj Zizek) still seem to support China’s occupation of it – something to do with “development”, one of the core reasons for the split in arguments over self-determination. However, the arguments of development  in relation to Tibet are farcical. Moreover, I challenge anyone to go to Tibet and then argue the Chinese occupation is a positive thing for Tibetans, regardless of what little infrastructure has been put in place.

The Tibetans are an oppressed people economically, practically and culturally.  Since the occupation began, similarly to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, there has been a massive influx of ethnically Chinese people (of course what is meant by Israeli is rather more controversial). This was increased by the construction of the Beijing to Lhasa railway. Now two-thirds of the inhabitants of Lhasa (Tibet’s capital city) are Chinese. Again similarly to Israel, the settlers are given an economic incentive to move and live there. As a result, unlike in British India, where the Indian elite were used as puppets by the British (holding positions in government administration), if you are Tibetan it is extremely difficult to get any sort of well-paid job. A significant cause of this may be that exams at university can only be taken in Chinese. We met people who spoke perfect Chinese, but had been unable to finish their degrees (after several years of expensive tuition [another example of the unequal realities of China – universities are prohibitively expensive for anyone but the rich])  because their written Chinese was not good enough. There is, by the way, a 54% illiteracy rate in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” which rises to 59% when including the Tibetan regions incorporated into China.

A further consequence of the new railway is the increased militarisation of Tibet, particularly after the unrest of 2008. Armed police officers stand on every street corner in Lhasa holding massive guns (with live ammo) or just big sticks. They patrol up and down in groups, taking up the whole of the pavement and expecting you to move out the way. They oversee the squares both from the ground (where they have “PR” friendly resting spots for pilgrims) and from the rooftops. If anyone was to kick off they would probably simply be shot.

We met one person who told us that if you murder someone, you can buy off the officials (presumably they weren’t talking from experience!), but if you are arrested for “politicals”, your life is over. Moreover, you can look forward to torture which the UN called “widespread and routine” in Tibet in 2008. Not only your life will be affected, in fact, but that of your entire family. Given that you can’t even get a passport if one of your family members lives in India (to which the Dalai Lama fled in 1959), you can imagine the extent of ruin that this would cause. By the way, getting a passport standardly takes 3 years for Tibetans – they could go to China, but of course everything is too expensive for them to do that.

Unsurprisingly, there do not seem to be any political organisations that are not affiliated with the Chinese government. We heard that sometimes “Free Tibet” posters turn up in public toilets, but that seems to be the extent of the resistance. In fact, the main form of resistance against the Chinese comes from the Tibetan monks.

Protests by monks are what sparked the 2008 unrest and this is not the first time the monks have led the resistance. From  the perspective of the Chinese administration therefore, the repression of Tibetan religion was crucial. Obviously, the initial onslaught of violence against Tibetan monks and nuns in particular was prompted by the Cultural Revolution, in which thousands of monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks and nuns killed or imprisoned. Yet even now, the majority of political prisoners in Tibet are monks. There are police stations either inside or directly next to most monasteries. The Chinese authorities run programmes of “patriotic reeducation” which involve monks being “taught” pro-Chinese lessons at the end of which they have to pass an exam, write a self-critical essay, and denounce the Dalai Lama.

The “cultural genocide”, so called by the Dalai Lama, stretches even to eating implements. Whereas traditionally Tibetans used knives and spoons, now using chop-sticks is the norm, at least in public. During special festival times, people will still use spoons, but otherwise the Chinese influence dominates.

Does any of this sound like an autonomous, or even semi-autonomous region to you? This may be in line with Stalin’s idea of communism, but it certainly isn’t in line with mine, or any true revolutionary socialist. A simple reading of Lenin’s accessible pamphlets should demonstrate this.

So overall, no. China isn’t communist. It may not take the same form of capitalism which the Western world takes, but we know that while capitalism’s form can change its core principles and objectives cannot, and China certainly holds these close to its heart.

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For more information on Tibet see http://www.freetibet.org, or see http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=457&issue=119 for a decent history of Tibet post-1949

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