Thoughts from China: Socialism, a work in progress

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Editor's note: The author is teaching English in China.

BEIJING - I arrived in Beijing on June 25.  My first time in Asia. My first time outside of the Western hemisphere. Though I had studied some Chinese, I was a bit overwhelmed at the communication barrier as I walked into a restaurant to order my first meal here.  The menu was all in Chinese, with no pictures, and no pinyin. (Pinyin is the transcription of Chinese to the Latin alphabet, with accent marks denoting the tones).  Nevertheless, after being here for two and a half months, my Chinese is slowly improving.

My initial impressions of Beijing and China were, and still are, complex. China has surpassed Japan and Germany to become the second largest economy in the world, and China's GDP will likely pass that of the U.S. in a few years. China's economy is a mixed economy, with the state controlling much of what Lenin called the "commanding heights" of the economy, but with a large capitalist sector, and with an enormous number of small businesses. While the state permits capitalist enterprises, including foreign companies, to operate here, the state retains the ownership of the land, and essentially is granting the company the privilege of using the land in the interest of development.

It is true that China is a developing country. It also does, however, have a very modern aspect. The subway system in Beijing is world class, and also inexpensive at 2RMB per ride (around 30 cents USD), including limitless transfers. In 1980, there were only two subway lines; now there are 14, with plans to build 10 more in the next five years. The new lines will be welcome, as public transportation in Beijing, while modern and inexpensive, can be extremely crowded during rush hours.

Crime is very low. I feel safer in Beijing than in any other major city I've ever spent time in.  

The government in Beijing plans to raise the minimum wage by 15 percent every year for the next five years. Minimum wage varies by cities in China, but is universally low. In Beijing, it is currently about 1300RMB (about $200/month). Most workers make substantially better than the minimum wage, averaging probably about 5,000RMB. As an English teacher for a private company, I'm making about 12,000RMB (about $1500/month), on which I can live comfortably.

China exercises price controls on basic necessities such as food, and the cost of living is very low in general. One exception in Beijing is rent. My rent in Beijing is comparable to what I paid in Dallas, Texas, although my place is a little nicer.

In 2008, China passed a Labor Reform Law which grants workers some very important rights. Chinese labor law intentionally favors employees over employers. "Employment at will," so common in the U.S., is illegal in China. If an employer wishes to terminate an employee, the burden is on the employer to establish just cause. Economic difficulty is not considered just cause; and this law applies to all employers, large and small, foreign and domestic. There are strict restrictions on probation periods.   

Yet there are still companies, mainly foreign companies, who violate the law. And in some cases, workers have been treated in ways which one would hope to not occur in any country, particularly a socialist one. One can read about the case of Foxconn, for example, where there were several suicides by employees working in terrible conditions.  I don't have to read capitalist media to learn of this; CCTV (China's state-owned television network) ran a documentary about this.

The Marxist ideological level in China is lower than one might wish. The schools focus heavily on math and science (and do quite well at it), but don't seem to do much with philosophy. While the economy is booming as it currently is, maybe that doesn't seem like a huge issue; but I fear that if global recession causes the economy to worsen, this could be a problem. While China is still a developing nation, with socialism still in infancy, the Communist Party has truly accomplished much, lifting more people out of extreme poverty than any other country in history. Despite the many contradictions of China, an end to socialism here, a la USSR 1990s, would be a disaster for the Chinese people, and for workers everywhere.

Photo: Simon Hooks // CC 2.0