Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chen Yun

I've begun reading Prisoner of the State at last. The person who has impressed me the most so far in it--and I'm only about halfway through--is Chen Yun. He comes across as one of the more principled characters with whom Zhao Ziyang tangles.

Comrade Chen is famous for resisting the excesses of Maoist economics, arguing for light, consumer-oriented goods when the country was going all out for steel (at least that's what I recall from history textbooks... someone correct me if I'm wrong). But he clearly wasn't a market zealot. Throughout Prisoner of the State, which is centered on the 1980s, Chen calls for restraint, blocking lucrative deals with foreign companies but grudgingly going along with other of Zhao's schemes when the logic of reform is inescapable.

In other words, Chen really meant what he said to Mao and to Deng alike: private enterprise has its role, but it is a secondary role to government. Agree with him or disagree with him, Chen kept true to his own experience and instincts, at a time when it paid off big time to toe the prevailing line. And when it was dangerous not to do so.

In contrast, I find myself repeatedly uncomfortable with Zhao's market fever. Of course, the market must have felt refreshingly bold only a little over a decade after the Cultural Revolution. But was ceding a large section of Hainan to a private developer, as Zhao tried to do, really so visionary?

Some people are revered by later generations not because they were always right, but because they took the right stand at a crucial moment. Zhao certainly did this when he refused to assent to the martial law declaration in 1989. For that he deserves all our respect.

More on Tonghua

It is a little strange to see battles over privatization in China again in 2009. The feeling is like the late 90s / early 2000s, when thousands filled the streets of Daqing, Liaoyang and elsewhere, playing the Internationale on boomboxes and demanding accountability from corrupt managers plundering state assets.

I would have guessed that the country's migrant workers, who have been laid off by the tens of millions since the onset of the global financial crisis, would be at the heart of labor unrest this year. Yet, once again, the socialist heritage and tighter organization of state-owned enterprise workers has once again pushed them, not migrants, to the front.

The scene is different this time around, though. Crucially, at least in the most high-profile cases, the workers seem to be winning. Linzhou Iron & Steel in Anyang City, a state-owned steel mill in Henan, just shelved privatization plans after thousands of workers protested and took an official hostage. This follows the capitulation of bosses and local authorities in Jilin after workers killed an executive of Tonghua Iron & Steel Works in a riot.

While I was in China recently, Xin Jing Bao, did an interesting series of stories about the background of the Tonghua riots. Among other things, it interestingly noted that police were focusing on finding which workers put up posters urging a protest... really, that was most important? Not who killed the boss? An interesting insight into the mindset of some authorities.

Anyway... it remains to be seen whether the tactics and plain sense of self-worth and of social justice possessed by SOE workers will have any impact on China's working class as a whole.

P.S. I'm afraid that on re-reading my previous post, I realized it was rather repetitive of points I've made elsewhere. It also owed itself to my exchanges with Woodoo and others over at ChinaGeeks.