Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 15

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

One of the biggest contradictions of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politics is that while the Jiang Zemin leadership is trying to phase out class struggle, antagonism among different sectors of society is getting more strident by the day.

A highlight of the upcoming 16th CCP Congress is the revision of the party constitution to enshrine Jiang’s pet “Theory of Three Representations” (that the party represents the highest productivity, the most advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the broadest masses.”)

The humdrum wording of this dictum masks important corollaries, some of which have been deliberately left vague by cadres and the official media alike. First, because the future of China lies in the hands of private businessmen, managers and IT-savvy professionals, members of these “new classes”–considered by Jiang and his aides as representatives of the “highest productivity” if not “the most advanced culture”–should be admitted to the CCP and later even inducted into its senior ranks.

Thus, classic Marxist views of businessmen as “exploiters”–and the need for the proletariats to wage a perennial and at times bloody struggle against the marauding capitalists should be revised. That the CCP is ready to bid a farewell to class warfare is also evident in its commitment to serve “the fundamental interests of the broadest masses.” Henceforward, the party will in effect become a quanmin dang–a party for all the people, not just the proletariats, deemed by Karl Marx and Mao Zedong alike as the vanguard of the party.

Because Jiang is treading on treacherous ideological terrain, the president and party chief has been careful in laying out his new doctrine. While “Three Representations” has been repeated ad nauseum in the media as well as in ideological classes for cadres and workers, Jiang and his advisers have never made a clear-cut pronouncement that class struggle is now passe and that the CCP has peacefully evolved into a quanmin dang.

Rather, Jiang has merely indicated that “we need new ideas for further development, new breakthroughs for reform and new vistas for the open-door policy.” Echoing the famous axiom of the late reformer Hu Yaobang–that “Marxism cannot solve all the problems of today”–Jiang said in a speech at the Central Party School in late May that “it is a mistake to treat Marxism in a doctrinaire manner.” Marxism required new breakthroughs, he added.

Sources knowledgeable about preparations for the 16th Congress said the party charter would be revived in such a way as to allow members of the “new strata of society”–a euphemism for the “new classes”–to join the CCP. Moreover, it will be reiterated that because China is only at a preliminary stage of socialism, the coexistence of the state and the non-state economies will be a long-term phenomenon. And if private entrepreneurs abide by the law and pay the taxes, they should not be considered exploiters.

An article in the July issue of the CCP theoretical journal Seeking Truth pointed out that “it is impossible for private businessmen to develop into an independent class.” The article, by theoretician Qiu Shi, claimed that because the state would continue to have ultimate control over the economy, private entrepreneurs could not evolve into an independent class. “The fundamental interests and goals of different social sectors are the same,” Qiu wrote. “There is no antagonistic contradiction among different social strata, let alone class antagonism.”

At the same time, major state media has come up with commentaries reassuring workers that their traditional status as “owners of the state” and “vanguard of the party” will not be affected. A mid-July commentary by the Xinhua news agency said the CCP would “always uphold the fundamental goal of relying on the working class with all its heart and mind.” The state media also quoted Politburo member Wei Jianxing, who is in charge of labor unions, as saying the recent reforms had not changed “the status of the working class as the masters of the state and enterprises.”

Unfortunately, arguments about the “peaceful coexistence” of workers and nascent capitalists run counter to the Deng Xiaoping axiom that Jiang has recently revived to justify his somewhat awkward attempt to revise Marxism: “Practice is the sole criterion of truth.” Evidence of the selfish, ugly, exploitative face of what cynics have called born-again capitalism with Chinese characteristics has become too obvious to whitewash. Practice has indeed proven that class warfare may be in the offing.

The official media has in the past fortnight run dozens of articles on how nouveau riche businessmen had evaded at least 100 billion yuan in taxes last year. According to an article in the People’s Daily, less than 20 percent of depositors own 80 percent of the more than 7 trillion yuan worth of funds held in savings accounts in Chinese banks. Yet these millionaires pay less than 10 percent of all personal-income taxes.

In an internal speech last month Premier Zhu Rongji pointed to the fact that most of the 100 Chinese multimillionaires listed by U.S.-based Forbes magazine did not need to pay taxes. “I earn just around 800 yuan a month,” Zhu thundered. “How come I’m paying taxes and they [the nouveau riche] don’t? Why is it that the superrich pay the least taxes?”

And numerous commentators have linked the recent spate of mining and industrial accidents to the corrupt practices as well as get-rich-quick mentality of the unscrupulous private owners of mines and factories. After an accident in a gold mine in Fan Zhi district, Shanxi Province killed at least thirty-nine workers last month, the Legal Daily launched an investigation into the 300-odd privately held mines in the same area. The official daily found that nearly all these mines had at least one fatal accident in the past couple of years–and that local authorities had tolerated unsafe working conditions because they had been bribed by the owners.

The Beijing Youth Daily said in an early July commentary that vicious industrial accidents were often “the result of the alliance of capital and power.” The influential daily said particularly in remote areas such as Shanxi, Shaanxi and Guangxi provinces, where large numbers of deadly accidents had taken place, mine operators were in cahoots with local officials. Factory and mine owners ignore safety regulations because they enjoy the protection of friends and relatives in regional governments. The daily said the major cause of the accidents was that “local governments had been corrupted by the power of money.”

Class antagonism, of course, had first reared its head in the late 1990s when workers began to be laid off on a large scale by both state-owned as well as private companies. Cases of dismissed laborers attacking or killing their bosses have occurred with disturbing frequency. Owners of private factories have also been blamed for ill-treating workers, particularly migrant laborers from poor western provinces. For example, it is not uncommon for factory owners whose employees work and live on the premises to padlock the doors and windows at night to prevent theft. This practice, coupled with poor safety equipment, has resulted in large numbers of casualties in case of fire.

Not surprisingly, leftists, or quasi-Maoist conservatives who have been sidelined since the early 1990s, have taken advantage of the growing class antagonism to attack free-market reforms–as well as to claw back some political capital. Leftists have been at the forefront of the campaign to prevent what they call the adulteration of Marxism–and to block the Red capitalists’ entry to the CCP.

Beijing is rife with stories that former party chairman Hua Guofeng–Mao’s anointed successor–has threatened to quit the party if it starts to let in Red bosses. Ousted by Deng in late 1978, Hua was most famous for his “theory of whateverism”–namely, whatever Chairman Mao said and did is correct. And nearly 1,000 party veterans reportedly held a rally in Beijing on July 1, the CCP’s birthday, to protest against Jiang’s alleged revisionism of classic Marxism and Mao Thought.

After all, the leftists [quasi-Maoists] have not only decried the “evil class nature” of private entrepreneurs. They have blamed Jiang for giving the “Red bosses” a new deal without consultation with such bodies as the CCP Central Committee. It is noteworthy that when Jiang pronounced in July 2001 that the party would open its door to private businessmen, the CCP already boasted more than 100,000 “private-sector” members. These included former state employees who had retained their party affiliation after they had taken the proverbial dive into the sea of business.

Moreover, even before the party charter is revised, Jiang and his aides have raised the status of businessman-party members. In Guangdong, Beijing and a number of provinces and cities, entrepreneurs, professionals and staff in joint ventures have for the first time in Communist-Chinese history been elected to regional-level party congresses. And it is likely that there will be several red bosses among the 2,000-odd delegates to the 16th Party Congress, one of whose major responsibilities is to elect the new Central Committee. Leftists have with good reason accused Jiang of imposing a fait accompli on the party.

For the moment, of course, Jiang and his Politburo colleagues–most of whose sons and daughters are either budding Red capitalists or professionals working for joint ventures–have the upper hand. However, should polarization between rich and poor–as well as exploitation and corruption–become more serious, it will not be too difficult for leftists to secure the support of the exploited classes, which include a good chunk of the more than 150 million unemployed workers and peasants.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a China analyst.

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