Government corruption, the job market, and student protest in 1989
Starting in 1987, official state policies stipulated that from then on college students were expected to find their own jobs. The iron rice bowl became a piece of breakable chinaware. Students' search for jobs gave them direct experience of the inequality of the job market, where the children of senior Chinese cadres were often well placed in private companies because of their fathers' positions in the government. For the millions of Chinese college graduates who were suddenly snatched from their secure, privileged positions as college students and thrust into the job market for a Darwinian struggle, especially students who had been educated of social equality under Communism (however untrue that might be) they were furious and felt extremely unfairly treated.
In the preceding ten years, because of China's economic reforms and eagerness to attract foreign investments, the state loosened the ideological grip. Therefore, there were active political debates and intellectual dialogues going on, with many radical elements posting their opinions on a wall in downtown Beijing. It was called the "democracy wall" because of the heated discussions of democracy in these writings. The discontented students and the pro-democracy activists merged in 1989, forming a student movement against "government profiteering," asking for greater political transparency and a more democratically elected government. The students held hunger strikes and staged months of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the center of Beijing. The government felt things were getting out of their control. Even the press, thinking that the initial state dialogues with the students meant the government really was going to open up this time, openly reported on the student movement for days, something unprecedented in Communist Chinese history where the media was the mouthpiece of the state. Finally, on June 3, the government used regular troops to crush the students remaining in Tiananmen Square. Different reports of the dead students and Beijing residents ranged from hundreds to thousands. There was a thorough crackdown on the activists in this political movement after June 4. Most of them were identified from video clips and apprehended. They were jailed, and dozens were executed. Most top student leaders went into hiding and eventually made it to the United States or Europe.
22. China after 1989
After 1989, the Chinese people resumed their political reserve--they knew once again they needed to keep their mouths shut about politics as they saw what could still happen to them. On the other hand, the state did not stop the open door policy, and, like other autocratic governments, it decided the best way to pacify the people was greater economic development---so that economically they would be better off and thank the government for it. People were encouraged to make money but not to comment on Communist Party policies. Many former political activists turned to money making. Political transparency stopped. Still, there was, to some extent, greater freedom of the press---though not in the form of criticizing the party. Political issues could now be touched on in the form of tabloid news (e.g., so-and-so has this much money because of embezzlement, and so on). Even so, there was certain news the media could not touch upon. And although individual party members could be exposed and condemned (see chapters 2 and 4 in Link's book), the Communist party itself could not be questioned or commented on, and its senior leadership could not be touched by the media if they were still in power.
23. Market Economy and Women
The issue of women and their status in Chinese society is not just about gender; it is also a reflection of the goals and values of Chinese society and the Chinese state. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese women were told they held "half the sky," but in reality, they were not allowed to display their womanhood. The erasure of the social display of gender differences, for the Communist Party, was in line with their policy to put Communist rule before the individual and the family. Under such policies, paradoxes abounded. Almost all women went to work, yet women often held more lower-paid and less-professional jobs. Professional women looked down on housework, including child rearing, and they were justified by the Soviet leader Lenin's argument that housework was the work of the slave. The traditional praise of a woman as a "virtuous wife and good mother" has become an insult to the majority of urban girls, for whom the term is the equivalent of wearing an outdated piece of clothing that belonged to one's grandmother.
More and more men have started to do household chores as their wives go to work and ascend the job ladder, although regional variations exist. Arguably southern Chinese men do more household work than northern ones, and the men from Shanghai, the largest metropolis in China, have especially a reputation for taking over a significant portion of household work, while handling full time jobs. On the other hand, all over China, rural, low-income men seem to be the last to do household chores. To put this into perspective, in rural China arranged marriages are still often practiced, even though they became illegal under the 1950 marriage law. The urban/rural gap continues to be reflected not only in income distribution but also in the treatment of women.
Thirty-five years have passed since Mao sent the educated urban youth en masse to the countryside partly as a way to address the urban/rural divide. Today, the divide still exists, and in some regions it is worse than before, because some of the rural population has been adversely influenced by the growing market economy. In some regions the situation is better, partly because young people from the country migrate to the cities, take up temporary jobs, and send money back home. Young rural girls often serve as household servants in urban families. City-dwellers' prejudices against these girls show that not only is there a divide between the city and the country, but also one between urban women and rural women. The often educated urban women who are invariably the employers of rural domestic servants often look down upon the latter's low level of education and lack of manners and quite easily suspect rural girls of being prostitutes or thieves (see Link, chapter 5). The urban/rural gap between women is also the topic of chapter 3 in Link's book: urban women tend to condescend to rural women, even when the former want to help the latter out of their helpless situations---that is, the routine sufferings from "coercion, force, and violence" from men who impose their will in "matters related to arrangement of marriages, household discipline, sexuality, and other sensitive areas" (Link, 60-61).
How rural women are disadvantaged by the market economy
The growth of the commercial economy in China seems to enforce gender inequality that dates back to pre-Communist China. Paradoxically, despite all the political movements to bring forth a new culture, Communist China has failed to stem certain traditional practices it set out to end, such as arranged marriages and patriarchal rule of the family in rural China. With a commercial economy, more and more rural households find themselves that money is tight, and so they arrange marriages for their daughters in order to get cash from the bride money given by the groom's family. Often women are married to men who live in far away places because their natal villages are poor and their parents do not have much of a choice when it comes to deciding who (and where) their daughters can marry. This situation reinforces male dominance over the new wives because they do not have the support of their natal homes in their new environment. The household responsibility system in the countryside (contracting state land to individual peasant households) has led to greater efficiency in farming and allowed many men to flock to work in the cities, leaving their women behind to take care of the land and the household. Men seeking extramarital affairs or harassing the women who are left behind by their husbands in the village often go unpunished by law or village authority, while women who commit adultery are often severely punished by their spouses, reflecting the legacy of the traditional patriarchal society (see Link, chapter 3).
Urban Chinese women and the economic reform
In contrast to their rural counterparts, young, educated urban women seem to have endless possibilities waiting for them, which they embrace with dreamy eyes as seen on page 138 (in Link) in the picture of the cover girl for the magazine The Young Generation. The urban woman is a far cry from the rural woman and from her predecessor, the reeducated girl high school graduate back in the 1960s-1970s (for comparison, see the picture on page 142). Revolutionary expectations are no longer there. Very few Chinese in their early twenties (born around 1980) know what the Cultural Revolution was. Both urban men and women have been educated through commercials via television and other forms of mass media on how to consume and build up an individual identity through the choices of material goods. Magazines are an important source in teaching the young how to build an identity based on material consumption and in addressing their increasing quest to understand society and themselves. Numerous Western magazines, such as Elle and Cosmopolitan, are published in Chinese editions to offer the young Chinese consumers an international perspective. From these magazines, young Chinese female professionals learn how to fashion their own images and how to manage their lives (Link, chapter 6).
The new lifestyle of consumption in urban China is closely related to the economic reform: professional women who work in certain types of jobs now can earn significantly more money than in Maoist China because wages are no longer regulated by the state. Women and men now have greater chances to exercise their abilities if they work hard enough and have the right opportunities, as in the story of the lawyer Liu Xiaohong (see pages 151-53). Sure, they may still face similar problems as their rural counterparts sometimes, such as spousal abuse (155) or sexual harassment from male bosses or colleagues (156-57), but they are on the whole much more mobile than rural women and being literate and knowing their rights better, they are more likely to flee, resist, or fight it out than their rural counterparts. On the whole, urban women gain considerably through the economic reform.
24. Rural to Urban Migration as solution to the urban/rural gap?
The Cultural Revolution practice of sending millions of Red Guards to the countryside as a way to integrate the country and the city, in retrospect, looked extremely naive. The educated urban youth seldom really integrated with the peasants---they lived in separate quarters, often kept to themselves during their spare time, and many kept on studying with whatever books they were able to smuggle to the country, with the hope that one day they would be able to get out of there. Their dream finally came true in winter 1977, when the nationwide college entrance examination system was again revived. Almost all the college freshmen of 1977 and 1978, and half of the freshmen of 1979, came from the reeducated youth in the countryside or from the factories. As time went on, many of the remaining reeducated youth came back to their hometowns from the countryside (unless they had lived in Shanghai; many could not return to that city because of overcrowding).
With the growth of the market economy and the household responsibility system in the countryside, the reverse has been happening in the past ten or more years: about 100 million farmers have migrated to the cities looking for work. They usually live in sub-standard housing, working for extraordinarily low wages, with no health insurance, no workplace guarantee of safety, and no retirement pension. The huge gap between life in the city and the country means even when many are making below minimum wages in the cities, they are still making more than they would in the country. One question that is likely to arise is: is this reverse flow of population going to reduce the gap between the urban and the rural in China?
The gap between the urban and rural is so huge that Li Zhang sees the urban and rural populations as belonging to two different "nations" (see Link, chapter 12). This difference continues when rural girls rush to the cities for sweatshop jobs. The very depressing working conditions described in Link (in chap.7) contrasts with the greater job opportunities for educated city girls, indirectly reflected in the magazines the latter read (see Link, chapter 6). The leisure, dreams, and taste of urban girls are things the rural factory girls never dream of---they do not even have time to write home or to visit hometown friends who work in nearby factories because of the usual 12 hour work days. It never occurs to most of them that they have rights--to a regular paycheck, to resign, and to minimum wage and standard working hours (Link, chapter 7). They are grateful to have a chance to work. For many of them, this may be the first time they come to a city, and the first time to use electricity and even running water instead of kerosene lamps and water drawn from a well. The hard life in the countryside has prepared them to be very tough and not complain. The bad working conditions are true also for the male workers. In some factories, workers routinely have their fingers chopped off in machine accidents because the factories refuse to add security measures to their machines, because it would increase the cost of the machinery. The workers then are usually dismissed either with minimal medical compensation or with no compensation at all. Occasionally, their cases get reported in the local newspapers and international papers like the New York Times. But most of the time, their stories go unheard. Local governments are under pressure to check on the factories more closely, but the results are very slow in coming. Corruption is an important element: bribes have shut the mouths of many officials. Of course some rural laborers fare somewhat better. Among those with lighter jobs, such as domestic nannies, many of them acquire a taste for urban life through interactions with the households they serve (Link, chapter 2).
Li Zhang argues that one of the reasons for the prejudice against rural migrant workers in the cities is the lingering hukou (household registration) system (see Link, pages 279-80). Although the development of market economy means the rural migrants can survive in the city (buy their own food and clothing without need for the coupons, as the rationing system has ended), the household registration system defines the migrant workers as peasants and, as such, their children need to pay extra to attend schools in the cities because they are not "residents of the district" because they don't have household registration in that district. Because of the highly unstable nature of their work (construction work, nannies) and the absence of medical insurance associated with their jobs, illness often means the end of their work, if not death. I personally witnessed a construction worker on a stretcher in 1989. He was possibly paralyzed because he fell from a construction site. But the doctors were in no hurry to rush him into the emergency operation room because he had no money to pay for it. So he was left on the stretcher before the doctors could reach a decision on what to do about him. The migrant workers also lack legal protection against sexual harassment and other abuses (see Link, pages 282-83). Although some migrant entrepreneurs are able to "make it" (286-87), they are not the majority of the migrant workers. Zhang emphasizes that the household registration system continues to be a main hindrance to the rural migrants in the cities, preventing them from enjoying urban privileges such as education and perhaps some medical benefits that urban residents are entitled to. If this is the case, with the growth of the market economy, the gap created by the household registration system should diminish, though the status of the rural migrant workers may improve more slowly.
25. Economic reform and the prospect of democracy in China
After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping steered China onto the stage of pragmatic reform. The forces unleashed by the reforms have challenged not only China's planned economy but also the party-state itself. Market reform, because it was accompanied by only limited political reforms and lacked a legal and regulatory framework, gave rise to bouts of inflation, rampant corruption, growing social and regional disparities, and economic and political decentralization (Merle Goldman and Roderick MacFarquhar, "Dynamic Economy, Declining Party State," in idem, eds. in The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999], 4.) Nonetheless, these reforms ended the political chaos and economic stagnation of the Cultural Revolution. Deng and most of his colleagues rejected Mao's utopian visions of the egalitarian society of the Great Leap Forward, the unending class struggle of the Cultural Revolution, and state control of the economy, collectivization of agriculture, and emphasis on heavy industry. The failures of the Mao era led Deng to believe the only way for the party to hold on to its weakened mandate was to improve the standard of living for the majority of the population. Despite the student demonstrations of 1989, which were a reaction to some of the problems in the growing commercial economy (e.g., government profiteering, uncertainty about losing the iron rice bowl and finding a job on their own, inflation, unfair competition in the job market against children of government leaders), in 1992, Deng Xiaoping reemphasized the need for greater economic reforms in order to stave off a Soviet style collapse.
In the process of economic reform Deng Xiaoping withdrew the power of the party from many areas of life except for two: birth control (because of China's one billion plus population) and politics (because of a market economy and because Deng wanted to repair Chinese life damaged under Mao's rule when politics dominated everything). But even in the area of politics, the party's control of the state has changed from the Mao era. The party/state's loosening grip on the economy set in motion, however, processes in society, the political structure, and the cultural arena that it could not control. The establishment of the special economic zones in the 1980s (four coastal Chinese cities in the south) and foreign-Chinese joint ventures helped reduce the party/state's control. Their appearance was concomitant with the state's decision to develop private and collective enterprises. Many state enterprises, formerly subsidized by the state, now were allowed to go bankrupt if they did not turn a profit. By the late 1990s, the state enterprise (or work unit) made up less than half of China's economic production was shrinking at an accelerating rate. In December 2001, China joined the WTO (World Trade Organization) which stipulated that by 2006, China should become a market economy and except for in a few areas, completely open its market to the outside world.
Deng did realize the need for political reform, although he did not want a checks-and- balances system. He did try to introduce measures into the party that would limit the concentration of political power in the hands of one or a few individuals. First government leaders, and now the highest party leaders, came to have fixed terms. The Chairman of the Communist Party, the chairman of the People's Republic of China, and the chairman of the People's Liberation Army, all have fixed terms. It was by these rules that the chairman of the party, Jiang Zemin, successor to Deng Xiaoping (d.1997) as the number one leader of China, and the Chinese premier Li Peng both retired in September 2002, their positions filled by the new party chairman, Hu Jintao, and premier Wen Jiabao.
A new phenomenon in the 1980s at the local government level was the implementation of the electoral system in the countryside. In the cities, it was tried out in 1980 but soon given up because the candidates elected did not please the party. The democratically elected village cadres are "relatively successful in securing popular compliance with state policies in return for defending villagers against the illegal predatory exactions of township and county officials, on whom they no longer need to depend for their positions."(Goldman, 13) The estimate of the percentage of villages holding their own elections was 10 percent by 1999 (Goldman, 13). In 1990, Deng Xiaoping also saw to the passage of a law on administrative procedure, which "gave ordinary people the right to bring suit against rapacious, arbitrary officials. Villagers, for example, began bringing suit against local officials who had confiscated their land for village industries or projects. In 1995 alone it was reported that 70,000 citizens filed suit against government agencies and officials" (Goldman, 14).
Although there has been much reform, most of it was accomplished by the directives of individuals. Deng Xiaoping's death in 1997 further weakened the party's authority as he had carried out many policies by relying on his personal prestige and this style---emphasizing personal rule over institutional procedures---was carried on by his successor Jiang Zemin, who had already become the party chairman seven years before Deng's death, when Deng officially "stepped down," although Jiang complied with his wishes in real policies. By now, the Communist party's power has been significantly weakened. The "paradox of the post-Mao era is that an expanding, dynamic economy has undermined the authority of the political leaders who have made it possible. Despite some limited political and legal reforms, there is an increasing dichotomy between China's economic growth and its increasingly fragmented party-state. As long as such a contradiction exists, China will be haunted by the specter of political instability" (Goldman, 16).
Increasingly, the party "has difficulties regulating an increasingly complex and fluid society in which the relationships between state and society are in flux" (Goldman, 21). China's expanding business class has its interests "served by maintaining its present relationship with officials. The subordinate status of the rising economic forces--the self-employed, collectives, clans, and small and large scale private businesses--has been reinforced by the party's efforts to co-opt their associations and head off any challenge to the political system. Even the non-governmental associations, which are self-financing, function under some sort of official supervision. Professionals and academics, some of whom--lawyers, doctors, engineers, and educators--are establishing private practices, also have set up smaller, more flexible groups, which have replaced the official professional federations as their main source of association. Yet the degree of even influential nongovernmental groups of professionals and academics is delineated and policed by officials." (Goldman, 17-18) Even so, associations established under official supervision have been more assertive of their members' views than their sponsors' (Goldman, 17-18). We do see a degree of pluralism, although this pluralism stopped at direct criticism of the state. Several chapters in Perry Link's Popular China (e.g., chapters 2, 3, 5, and 6) reflect on this pluralism in the mass media.
Despite the gradual growth of cultural pluralism (although not necessarily political pluralism) in China, according to political scientist Andrew Nathan, even though the liberals, those who wanted more liberalization and economic freedom, and conservatives, those who were against such stand on the left by Western standards, they both want big government and egalitarianism.
The liberals wanted government to fight privileges with more economic and political reform, and the conservatives wanted government to protect citizens' welfare with less reform. Many also wanted government to fight inflation, corruption, crime, bureaucracy, inequitable income distribution, and inadequate government investment in education, as well as inadequate jobs, poor quality and crowded housing, shoddy goods, environmental pollution, etc. A substantial number of people explored the weakness of government in the traditional realms of government responsibility. Their agenda is called the "Tiananmen Agenda" since these issues were fought for by student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in May 1989.
Those who were concerned with the issues of daily life (the Tiananmen agenda) and the reform agenda are largely young, male, urban, and educated, while those who leaned toward the economic welfare agenda were largely older, rural, and female. The ideological divide was similar to that in the West: these groups represented the winners and losers of reform. Reform dissolved the commune and the limited social benefits associated with it.
Nathan's conclusion regarding future Chinese politics is interesting: "This urban-rural gap may likely shape the future of Chinese politics. Deng's reform may thus have bequeathed to China not only a soft transition to the market but also the beginnings of relatively clear, institutionalized, interest-based cleavages that can either shape a post-Deng authoritarian corporatist structure or undergird a democratic party system if one should emerge" (Andrew Nathan, China's Transition, Columbia University Press, 1998, chapter 12.). Nathan's conclusion is insightful, not only because it points to the continued urban/rural divide that may have sharpened due to the newly introduced market economy, but also because it highlights a possible alternative to political liberalism--interest group politics within the framework of the Communist Party leadership. The Maoist political lines may perhaps leave no trace behind ten or twenty years from now, and the Communist Party may continue to focus on economic development while not permitting direct criticisms against it, much like the governments of Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan a decade ago. On the other hand, the Communist Party of the future may begin to seriously address the grievances and complaints of people as they gain greater access to the state through the formation of interest groups, perhaps not just one urban and one rural group, but many subdivisions within each of these groups (e.g., various urban groups, such as the private entrepreneurs or the unemployed workers).
Merle Goldman and Roderick MacFarquhar, "Dynamic Economy, Declining Party State," in idem, eds. The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999].