We sat down recently with two Chinese graduate students, Liu and Joey, who are pursuing their doctorates at Virginia Tech. We took this opportunity to discuss the situation between Chinese and US workers, our collective struggles, and the importance of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial solidarity.
NRWP: For folks who are unfamiliar with Chinese society and what’s it like, could you tell us about your experiences growing up there?
Liu: I was born in 1988 and my parents were peasants. During the 1990s industrialization in China caused them to immigrate across the country and eventually they became small merchants selling electrical hardware. In the Third World we still have these localized small businesses.
There are five children in my family. After I made it to college, I became a worker. I tried being a salesperson, but this program I joined had us go work in a factory before I could actually be a salesperson. It was a factory to make optical transmitters. It was a sweatshop. They manipulated us into thinking we would be salespeople but we all just ended up on the production line. It was really, really, tough – working night shifts, limited space, standing consecutively for eight hours. And eight hours was the minimum we had to work, and then we were encouraged to work more. So we ended up averaging twelve hours a day. We lived in a campus, in small dormitories. It’s like a college dorm: no wi-fi, no entertainment, shared bathrooms with 100 people. It’s very depressing working overtime and having nothing to do. The factory went broke a few years ago. It was in Chengdu.
Joey: My story is pretty simple compared to Liu’s. I didn’t go through as many horrible things as Liu did. I am from the middle part of China. Unlike Guangdong where Liu is from, which is one of the fastest developing areas, I was born in an area that’s like Oklahoma. There is little development. It is mainly a rural area. But my parents are not farmers. My dad teaches middle school. We lived in the school, and my mom started a small shop in the school.
I also worked in a factory. My uncle ran it. There was only a dozen workers or so. But I only worked there for around two weeks. We worked eight hours. We had no air conditioning, very little space. I couldn’t stand the exhaustion of the work. So I quit.
Overall, I think my family was better off compared to my classmates’ families when I was in middle school. Most of my middle school classmates are from peasant families, while my dad was a middle school teacher. They failed to go beyond middle school and became production line workers after that. But once I went to high school in the city, I noticed most of my classmates were from the cities, unlike me.
Liu: There is a divergence between people from cities and people from rural areas. People from cities with middle class backgrounds dress more fancy, go shopping, go out to the movies. They are very focused on romance and relationships.
Joey: I had never been to a theater to watch a movie until high school. Our teacher organized the whole class to go to the theater to watch a movie. That was the only movie I ever saw before going to college.
Liu: In the US even when you have different classes living with each other they share a lot of the same standards and infrastructure. If you are in a rural area in China you don’t get the same access as people in the cities.
Joey: It’s very competitive in the Chinese educational system because of the lack of resources. As a child you have to outperform your peers otherwise you won’t get the chance to get into a good high school. Your education stops there, and you end up as a worker on the production line. That’s not a good future.
I’m from a rural area so I can see how privileged the kids are who are born in the cities, especially in big cities. In my hometown, there is only one good high school in the city that can actually give you the chance to go to college. The high school only accepts around 1000 students a year. There must have been 10000 to 20000 students taking the entrance exam. The top 1000 get to go to the school. I was one of only five students in my middle school accepted into that high school. Most of my middle school classmates stopped with their middle school degree. Yet the students who are from the best middle school in the city got one-third of their classmates into the high school.
A lot of kids didn’t have good nutrition in my hometown when we were kids. My cousin went to a doctor recently and he was told his chest isn’t fully developed, because as a child he didn’t get enough nutrition. My family is privileged compared to his family because they were peasants, while my dad is a teacher.
Liu: The privileged people in the cities are also “civil servants” who are well connected in the party. Teachers, doctors, business owners. We have strong beliefs in Confucianism to be “upwardly mobile,” and the education system is “merit-based” – whether or not you can get a high score.
Joey: Even though the importance of education for everyone has been long emphasized in Chinese history because of Confucianism, the quality of education varies. Cities always have better education than rural areas. Children from rich families always receive better education than children from poor families. During Mao’s era he emphasized not only education for everyone, but also good education for everyone, especially good education for children from worker and peasant families. Educational equality was a top priority for him. He even used administrative orders to force good teachers in the cities to go to the countryside and teach peasant children so that they could get access to good education.
Liu: It was a sort of affirmative action policy to equalize education.
NRWP: What made you want to come to Virginia Tech for school?
Liu: Virginia Tech is one of the three top 100 colleges that charges tuition under $30,000 dollars. I have to pay my own tuition and this [sum] is a lot. This was the most affordable. And it’s a rural school. I wanted to be a salesperson and come to the US and explore the market. There was also a lot of marketing to make America seem appealing. I do regret coming to Virginia Tech, because of how expensive it is and the quality of the education.
Joey: I never planned to come to Virginia Tech. While I was a senior in college, I was thinking about getting an advanced degree in the US. I applied to a bunch of different colleges and programs in the US. And because I don’t have money to support myself, I have to apply to PhD programs because PhD programs usually come with a stipend. I received a few offers with stipends and VT was the best among them. So, I came to VT.
NRWP: What have you noticed is different between China and the US?
Liu: Economically the US does have a larger middle class and in terms of standards the US is much, much higher. People are more friendly. In China living in a rural area can be very devastating if you are a woman, coming from a peasant family, and don’t have an education.
Joey: Americans are definitely living a better life compared to Chinese families. Americans are nicer than Chinese. I think this can be explained by the fact of the lack of resources in China. In China everyone has to pay a lot of attention to money, what you can do to support your family and your children. It’s been so competitive. People work harder in China compared to the US. Even though there are some sweatshops, people live with them. People bear a lot of burdens in China. China has been developing so fast, everyone is expecting a better life tomorrow. It’s not like Blacksburg, where things barely change. Even in my hometown it has changed very fast. The motivation for people to work so hard is the idea that things will get better.
Liu: I agree with Joey. I would add I prefer to live in China than the US, even though in the US people look nice and you can go to restaurants, have all these things. Still, I see all the disparities, the racial issues. I think China has more opportunities to enter the middle class than Americans do. It’s not just monetary gains, it is [a question of] the ideology. In the US it is very liberal, with neoliberalism, the market, competition, small government, all these kinds of thinking, the liberal idea of the individual. People are responsible for who and where they are: being homeless, being working class, it’s all reduced to your choice. I don’t like this rhetoric. In China it’s more collectivist, but in Western media they might say its authoritarian or totalitarian. But we have the sense that the government has a responsibility to meet peoples’ needs.
NRWP: Do Americans behave differently?
Liu: Besides individualism versus collectivism, I would say Americans are hedonists. They are told to enjoy themselves, to behave, to not challenge the rhetoric, to just party and be carefree. Americans are discouraged from challenging their social structures.
Joey: Americans are more outgoing. They are nicer. And they like to share stories with you. In China everyone has to have a sense of self-protection when dealing with strangers. If you talk to a stranger too much, they might take advantage of that information. You have to be careful about random persons.
Chinese people tend to behave more collectively. You want to fit into a group. That’s kind of a cultural requirement. In the US people worship their own identity. In China, getting a tattoo makes you seem different. But in the US it seems it doesn’t matter. If you even color your hair in China it comes with a negative stereotype – that you are a bad person. But on the other hand, Chinese people are more willing to help each other. If I were to go to Guangdong with Liu, I could find people who are from my province and they would help me get settled.
NRWP: What do you think is the biggest misconception Americans have about China?
Liu: Previously the US saw China as a Third World country, a communist country. After Trump assumed office, the media increased its hostility towards China. I feel they worry China will become hegemonic. The US media also loves putting out the idea China is stealing US jobs.
Joey: First of all, China is big. It’s four times bigger than the US in terms of population size. Almost all the claims about China – the sweatshops, communism, and being a “technological superpower” – there are some truths to them. But they are just partial truths. If you go to the big cities you would be surprised by how advanced China is. But if you go to rural areas, you see how poor Chinese people are. Most Americans don’t understand how complicated the situation is in China. There’s this idea that China is very technologically developed. But if you look at the countryside, you will know China is not rich. Most of the people in China are still poor.
Liu: The US has portrayed the importance of democracy, freedom, freedom of speech, religious freedom, China is described as the opposite of these values. But it’s not that China infringes on these values. People prioritize living standards over democracy. It’s not that we don’t value those other things. It’s that people are struggling to survive.
NRWP: We are often told by authority figures that China is communist or socialist, do you think that is accurate?
Liu: Some argue China is state socialist. But since the opening up of China in 1978, capitalism was introduced. Private property ownership was introduced. The market economy prevails over a socialist planned economy. You could say it is a combination of capitalism and communism because of the role of the state and owning property. However, the prevalence of capitalist management in China is only a result of the state mobilizing labor.
Joey: I think Liu made good points. He described a lot of what’s going on in China. But to answer the question, it involves the definition of socialism, communism, and capitalism. It is very hard to clarify those terms. It is true that there are a lot of state-owned companies in China. They are usually giant companies in the essential industries like energy production, mining, etcetera. Some people would take this as evidence of socialism. But it’s very complicated because we can also see this as an old tradition. It’s a long tradition in China that we have a strong central government. For example, almost 2000 year ago, the central government started to control the production and selling of salt. Salt was essential business in ancient China. The government would not allow any private sector operations in the salt business. This is very similar to the contemporary government of China controlling the essential industries by state-owned companies. State-owned companies don’t necessarily indicate socialism. For me, the key to a socialist society is the promotion of equality instead of state-owned companies. I think Mao did the best to promote equality in Chinese history. Right now, I can see capitalism everywhere in China. The management style is definitely capitalist in the workplace. It doesn’t matter if it’s state-owned or privately operated. There are sweatshops existing in China. That cannot be any more capitalist.
NRWP: Do you think Americans understand what these words, socialism/communism, mean?
Liu: Based on my observation the Cold War rhetoric does influence Americans. The rise of Bernie Sanders reflects a decline of that Cold War ideology. At the State of the Union address Trump said the US will never be socialist. But young people are changing their minds. The US is a class-based society, ten percent owns everything. And then the middle class is footing the bill for welfare. And the rest is working class, people are realizing the class structure, and they want to change things, and they borrow the idea of socialism. That’s how revolution begins.
Joey: I think most Americans don’t know what they mean when they use those words. For fifty years communism has been portrayed as the “enemy of the free world,” but I don’t think they understand what communism is. Soviet communism collapsed in the 1990s, but Soviet communism is different from what Marx said. Most of the time when we use the word “communism” we are not referring to the same thing. Most Americans have never thought about these terms. When they refer to socialism or communism they are just referring to big government.
NRWP: What do they mean to you and how do they relate to China?
Liu: Socialism is a social system that is based on shared property ownership. There is no private property, and everything is shared. Communism, according to Marxism, is the last stage where productivity has been advanced and people don’t have to worry about a shortage of resources. That stage is called communism, based on high productivity and shared properties. I think China is a socialist country, although there is a lot of capitalism. There is a growing consumerism in China.
Joey: I wouldn’t define socialism as shared property. From my view I think socialism means equal opportunity. Shared property is just one way to equalize people. People are privileged in different ways. For example, I am more privileged than my middle school classmates in my hometown, because my father is a middle school teacher while most of the parents of my classmates were peasants. I got a better chance to be educated than my middle school classmates. But I am also less privileged compared to a lot of my high school classmates and college classmates. This is the disparity in the education system. I think a true socialism should solve such disparities.
NRWP: Do you think the Communist Party of China (CPC) is actually capitalist?
Liu: I don’t think so. I think bureaucracy is bad. A big government body is bad. There are a lot of technocrats, and they don’t have socialist ideas. The people in the politburo do believe in these ideas. In the past four decades there have been rising living standards for Chinese people. There are more and more people who are buying luxury items. The average living standard has been going up. But the party also has been breaking down industries in Brazil and the Middle East. They provide very cheap engineering teams, cheap labor. Chinese people are willing to work harder. If they can work more than eight hours a day they will. If they could make more money and work twenty-four hours a day they would.
Joey: I am not sure whether the CPC is actually capitalist or not, but I can find capitalism everywhere in China. The state-owned companies may provide better conditions for workers, but the majority of the workers still work in the private sector. They have to work overtime and their rights are not well protected. The workers are exploited by their bosses in China. I can easily find a lot of capitalist features in China. But because everyone has been so poor in China in the past, and even though they are exploited, the income is still better than before. So they tolerate it.
NRWP: Why do you think the party-state is repressing leftists and workers in China for organizing and exercising their labor rights?
Liu: This is a result of having capitalist drivers in our country. Development in China has relied on direct foreign investment. China is competing with the rest of the world, so to retain that foreign investment the country needs an obedient workforce. So it makes sense why they spend so much time to “stabilize” the workforce.
Joey: The top priority of the state is economic growth. To have fast growth you have to make and keep your profit for investment. By investing more, you enlarge production which can make you more competitive and grow faster. If the workers demand higher pay and better conditions there will be less profit for investment. I think this is why the state has been repressive towards workers trying to organize. Simply speaking, I think the state wants the workers to sacrifice their living standards to economic growth as a whole. [The state] believes the economy can grow at a faster speed and the worker can eventually benefit from that growth if they sacrifice now.
NRWP: We have some technical rights to organize as US workers, but our bosses also use threats, intimidation, and retaliation to stop us. Do you see similarities between how the party-state responds to Chinese workers and how US bosses and politicians respond to US workers organizing?
Liu: My understanding is the US has been a major economy in the world since the eighteenth century. There use to be a big manufacturing strata in this country. During the early stage of capitalism, the capitalists had to exploit the workers to advance technology, as the US became a more wealthy country. But since the 1960s, with neoliberalism, all these jobs have been exported. The workers are no longer protected by the unions and are in a weaker position as a result. If I have to use a correlation between China and the US, China is in a period of de-unionization as well. Many Chinese workers don’t have good protection for their rights. This is a result of the capitalist-drivers prioritizing direct foreign investment in our country.
Joey: There are a lot of similarities between Chinese workers and US workers and the struggles they face. Chinese workers face a more serious situation because even though there is labor law in China, the law is only occasionally enforced. In many cases, Chinese workers cannot rely on the law to protect them. Bosses can fire workers any time they want with any excuse.
NRWP: Right now, there is a rising right wing nationalist movement engulfing the world. Do you see this also emerging in China?
Liu: Marx would say communism is no borders, no nations. Our “nationalist” outlook is anti-colonial. Nationalism is more like a weapon against colonialism-imperialism. We haven’t blamed the Jews, gay people, or minorities for the nation’s problems. Chinese nationalism has more been about self-reliance and resisting Western imperialism. There are a lot of infrastructure projects in Africa right now. They are extracting resources. But they also build infrastructure that benefits local people. It’s exploitation, but an exploitation more beneficial to the local people than what the West has been doing.
Joey: Yes. The government has been using a new ideology to describe themselves as the nationalist party to lead the whole country to a new “renaissance.” There is a clear shift of the ideology in the party. The party used to take communism as its aim. But now it’s more about leading the Chinese to “national prosperity.”
NRWP: What do you think is the right response to the rise of nationalism?
Liu: I think income disparities and wealth concentration do contribute to populist-nationalism in ordinary people. Unemployment also contributes to this, as technology advances and productivity grows, fewer workers are needed, so that feeds this [phenomenon of populism] as well. For centuries, it has been a paradox. On one hand, people need motivation. Capitalism and private ownership are the best mobilizers. However, these kinds of capitalist drives lead to income disparity. Rich people will accumulate more, and the unprivileged get less. I see the reason why [this happens] but as for solution, I’m unsure. Maybe state programs, maybe there will be a technological outbreak that addresses it.
Joey: If we want to have a response to this it is important to dig into why nationalism is rising. I think it’s because of the gap between the rich and the poor. For example, the immigration issue in the US. The majority of American people, especially the normal working class, are not living a good life as they used to 30 years ago. So they have to blame someone. They blame it on immigrants even though a lot of media outlets have been saying it’s not immigrants’ fault. But they won’t buy it because it is always easier to blame other nations or other races or immigrants. I think that’s why Trump got elected. I think nationalism is not the core of the question. The core of the question is the gap between the rich and the poor. Over the last 30 years, the gap gets bigger and bigger. I don’t think there is any way to prevent nationalism except by addressing the gap between the rich and the poor.
NRWP: One of the core principles of socialism is working class international solidarity. How do you think US workers can show solidarity and practice a real internationalism with Chinese workers?
Joey: Do US workers even want to do that?
Liu: I feel that after industrialization US jobs are cozy. It’s not like Chinese jobs where you work twelve hours a day in a factory. Consumerism and hedonism and religious beliefs all contribute to discourage US workers from having international solidarity.
Joey: I think if we want to develop internationalism among workers, the language and cultural barrier is a big obstacle between workers in different countries. People tend to only unite with people who share a lot of similarities with them. This is human nature. If we want to overcome the language and cultural barriers among workers in different countries, we need to recognize our common enemy. Once all workers recognize our common enemy workers in different countries will unite.
NRWP: Do you think the Chinese working class is at odds with the party-state?
Liu: To some degree yes. The party obviously wants stability, and they don’t want riots and protests in the street. However, I trust the top leadership of the politburo. I think they have a socialist vision. Maybe for the long term, they have workers’ interests in mind. I do think paternalism is a good way to understand China. Paternalism is everywhere. It will be perceived as authoritarian, but it does have its benefits. Your family is going to take care of you. You don’t have your “freedom.” but you have everything else.
Joey: First, I don’t think the government of China has been siding with workers. There’s always been labor law, but the law is only occasionally enforced in reality. Sometimes even the local governments themselves don’t want to enforce the law because they want to keep factories in their areas. Do the workers side with the government? I am not sure, because I have never been a real worker in a factory. I guess some do and some don’t.
NRWP: Do you think the US working class is at odds with the US state and its political parties?
Joey: It seems to me neither Democrats nor Republicans can represent US workers. It’s never been the focus of mainstream media or politics. The mainstream media and politicians only talk about and care about the “middle class.” I think the “middle class” cannot be used to describe normal workers anymore. When they talk about “middle class,” they might refer to a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, or a software engineer in a tech company. But they make much more money than a normal worker working in a restaurant or a supermarket.
NRWP: Is there democracy in China? How does it differ than US democracy?
Liu: Yes, formally everyone has a right to vote. But in practice it’s very hard to access the polls. Only a minority can participate.
Joey: Yes, there is democracy. Even though China doesn’t have general elections in practice, and Chinese don’t vote for the president, or vote for the mayor, there is democracy in China. I think democracy isn’t just about voting It is rather about having your voice heard and being able to participate in public issues. In this sense, there is democracy in China. There are a lot of ways to get your voice heard in China. For example, there are hearings and you can publish your opinion online. They are just many different forms and styles of democracy. On the other hand, people in China don’t really prioritize democracy. People are more focused on making more money and growing faster. If you spend your time on public issues you lose time when you could make money. Overall China is not as democratic as Western countries. I think that’s also partially because people don’t prioritize it.
NRWP: There are some leftists in the US and the West who defend the government of China and actually consider it socialist or communist in a positive sense. They see criticism of the party-state as wrong and believe what the party-state says. What would you say to this section of the US left?
Liu: Good friends.
Joey: I would say the government of China has been focused on solving economic problems. China is facing a lot of difficulties now. That is part of the reason why Xi Jinping is taking more control. China needs strong leadership to solve these problems and many Chinese people are also expecting it. But whether the current leadership can really solve the problems and lead China to a better future? I am not sure about it now. It still remains to be seen.
NRWP: Do you think either of our governments want workers to band together across national borders?
Liu: If the socialist workers movement succeeds in the US is would prove Marxism right, some in the party would want to see that.
Joey: It depends if it’s under the Communist Party of China’s leadership. If they control it, they would be happy to see that, but there could be a chance that this unity goes against both governments. If that were to happen maybe the CPC would split. This is one of the many possibilities. Some of the CPC members who are true communist believers might split and join a new union of workers and others will stay in the CPC to stay in power. I think if a union of workers across many countries can happen it has to be international. There can’t be any nationalism.
Joey: I think in the future Marxism has to adapt to the development of technology. The most important success of capitalist society is the fast development of technology. Capitalist society can boost the development of technology and that benefits everyone. I don’t think Marx gave enough attention in his theory to it. If Marxism can become the dominant ideology in the future the theory has to be developed and adapted to answer the question of how technology can advance in socialist society.
Liu: Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea are socialist countries. They are sympathetic to and supported by China.
Joey: I think some of the current socialist countries set bad examples to the world about what socialism is. We need a brand new socialism.
Liu: I think the party is only interested in economic growth. I think if you could build an internationalist movement, the government would cooperate. Class struggle will transcend nationalism.
This article originally appeared on the New River Workers Power site on February 10, 2019 and has been edited for this republication.