PAUL JAY: So my question is: that [1989-1990] was a very politically charged time. The authorities felt besieged. Now people say things have relaxed, things have changed, to some extent. How much have they changed? In today’s China, could you still be arrested for making a three- or four-minute speech [as Minqi Li was for advocating “workers’ democracy, workers’ control of the state-owned enterprises, democratization of education and politics”]?
LI: Well, depending on the content of the speech. You know, if I call for the overthrow of the Chinese government, then, obviously, I would get arrested. Otherwise, it depends on how you are going to deliver your speech. And so many things have changed a lot since then, but I would not say, in general, things have changed for better for the majority of the Chinese population. But things might have changed for better for some of the, let’s say, relatively privileged section of the Chinese population, including the intellectuals from all different political perspectives.
JAY: Minqi, can you give us some examples of what you say are a rising disparity or these social tensions? Give us some facts, some statistics on them, that give us a picture of what’s happening in general.
LI: There are some statistics, if I remember correctly, saying that anywhere between 1 percent and 5 percent of the Chinese population control about 70 percent of all of the financial wealth. And it’s also interesting that a few days earlier I read a commentary article in the Financial Times, which says why China’s middle class does not like democracy. It’s written by an American, and basically he is arguing that the middle class is actually a misnomer in the Chinese context. It’s actually about the most privileged 15 percent of the population. And they would in fact be quite concerned, given China’s context today, that if you do have democracy in China, they would be outvoted by the lower classes in China. So that gives you some idea about the situation in China today.
JAY: For example, what’s the situation in terms of health care for people, unemployment, some basic statistics about life?
LI: In terms of unemployment the official statistics is not that reliable. But, basically, throughout the 1990s, maybe 70 or 80 percent of the state industrial sector was privatized. As a result, between 30 million and 60 million of the state-sector and collective-sector workers lost their jobs in that period of time. In the meantime, we have, let’s say, between 100 million to 200 million of the workers — the so-called migrant workers, meaning they originally came from the rural areas — who then work and get employed in the urban sector. These migrant workers typically work in the sweatshop conditions — that’s well known. And in terms of health care, China used to have a relatively good basic health care system by third-world standards, and that has completely changed. And so China by now has arguably the most privatized health care system in the world, in terms of most of the workers, especially in the rural areas, who do not have access to health insurance, so they have to pay out of their pocket when they see a doctor.
JAY: In terms of the expansion of the Chinese economy, we saw a poll that said that 86 percent of Chinese are happy with the direction the country’s going in. Now, I don’t know how reliable the poll is, but we do seem to get the sense that most Chinese are happy with marching into this consumer society.
LI: About middle-class consumers, you are going to get that kind of survey results. In the previous part, we talked about the so-called middle class accounting for no more than 15 percent of the Chinese population. And if you do a survey among the rest of the 85 percent of the population, if you do a survey among the traditional workers who lost their jobs from state sectors, if you do a survey among those workers who work in the sweatshop conditions, or if you do a survey among the peasants who have lost their health care, then I guess you’ll get different results.
JAY: And to what extent are workers and rural people organized to resist what they see as an unfair situation?
LI: Apparently the resistance has been growing in recent years, and even by the official statistics, what they call “the mass incidents” has increased from something like 30,000 a year to now maybe 50,000, 60,000 a year. You still have many protests from the traditional-sector workers relating to issues about privatization, corruption that happened in the process of privatization. And now you even start to have some protest strikes of the new workers that work in the capitalist sectors, of the migrant workers.
JAY: And are these protests allowed, or are they cracked down on? I mean, is it illegal to organize these kinds of protests, or are they more or less allowed?
LI: Well, in China, you know, whether something is legal or illegal, allowed or not allowed, is always something ambiguous. So it’s not really a question about whether it’s legal or illegal; it’s a question about whether, in a given situation, the workers could get effectively organized. If they could put some pressure on the local government and, given the situation, it’s not convenient for the local government to simply crack down, then that protest will happen. Otherwise it will be difficult.
Minqi Li is Assistant Professor at the University of Utah specializing in Political Economy, World Systems, and the Chinese Economy. He was a political prisoner in China from 1990 to 1992. He is the author of “After Neoliberalism: Empire, Social Democracy, or Socialism?” (Monthly Review 55.8, January 2004) among other articles and The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World-Economy (London: Pluto Press, forthcoming). He also translated Ernest Mandel’s Power and Money into Chinese with Meng Jie: Quanli yu Ziben (Beijing: Zhongyang Bianyi Chubanshe [The CCP Central Committee Compilation and Translation Press], 2002). Part 1 of this program was released on the Web site of The Real News on 14 August 2008, Part 2 on 15 August 2008, and Part 3 on 16 August 2008. The text above is a partial transcript of the program.