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The language of class in China

Lin, Chun (2015) The language of class in China. Socialist Register, 51. pp. 24-53. ISSN 0081-0606

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Over half a century after the 1949 revolution, China is again being radically transformed, this time from a variant of state socialism to a variant of state capitalism. The country’s double path dependency – on the one hand, from pre-reform Chinese socialism, and on the other, from its newly endorsed globalization – distorts or limits its transition to capitalism, a transition project that is no longer tentative or politically hidden. Yet this project still cannot be openly embraced in official statements due to the enshrined commitment of the People’s Republic to socialism and the enduring attachment of the Chinese people to revolutionary and socialist traditions. This peculiar disjunction causes some extraordinary difficulties, not just in the articulation of class politics, but also in the way class politics operate in practice. The weakness, if not the complete absence, of an independent working class movement in China cannot be explained by repression alone. Multiple impediments to class consciousness and stronger labour mobilization arise from contradictory social changes and their confusing messages. In people’s subjective perceptions, when the ambiguity involved in a ‘socialist’ state taking a capitalist path is set aside, the contrast between visible gains in material prosperity and past scarcity hampers even the most ardent critics of the market transition. Such contradictions function dialectically to stabilize an otherwise crisis-ridden process, in the context of a formerly (and officially still) communist party undergoing a profound self-transformation. The refusal of the language of class, to be discussed in this essay, is a titanic act of symbolic violence on the part of the Chinese state, committed as part of a political strategy to make way for ‘reform and opening’. The tactic is also evident in official phrases such as ‘socialist market economy’, ‘primary socialist stage’, or ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – all of them largely devoid of socialist content. By the same token, China’s working men and women need an alternative vocabulary as a politico-ideological weapon for articulating their situations and demands. At issue is thus not only the way the concept of class is diluted or muted in China’s de-revolutionized polity; it is also about the way in which the lack of a language of class based counter-hegemony helps to explain the lack of counter-hegemonic organizational capacity. To say this is not to endorse the views of those who imagine that class conflicts can somehow be overcome outside the realm of political economy. The damage caused by the kind of identity politics which involves discursive political attacks on ‘class essentialism’ are manifest. The alarming retreat from both gender equality and ethnic peace in China, following the imposed denial of class, makes this powerfully clear. In that light class continues to be what the renewal of a multi-dimensioned, universal struggle for liberation ultimately depends on.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2015 Merlin Press
Divisions: Government
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
H Social Sciences > HX Socialism. Communism. Anarchism
J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
Date Deposited: 10 Oct 2014 11:21
Last Modified: 05 Nov 2021 00:13

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