China's path to a socialist democracy - China.org.cn
By Heiko Khoo
China.org.cn, October 14, 2012
At a clandestine meeting on July 29, 2006, 25 workers in Quanzhou City took on the largest corporation in the world and won. That night they formed the world's first Wal-Mart trade union committee. The mood was, by all accounts, euphoric and workers sang the Internationale as Ke Yunlong, a 29-year-old meat-packer, was elected to represent the workers and declared the event "the most meaningful achievement of our lives." Ke was encouraged to take the road of struggle by a neighbor who told him: "Before liberation, there were many people who participated in underground party branches, risking their lives. There's no threat to our lives these days. At worst you could lose your job or something." Subsequent grassroots action led to a campaign by the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to rapidly unionize all Wal-Mart stores in China, following a call by President Hu Jintao to build party organizations and trade unions in foreign-invested enterprises.
It remains true that ACFTU officials are generally associated with top-down habits and they are commonly viewed as being too close to management. As a consequence, the prominent workers' struggles that took place in 2010 were initiated from outside the official structures of the ACFTU. However, once workers found their voice, they demanded the restructuring of their grassroots trade union bodies. This is an inevitable part of the process of gaining the confidence and power to extend defensive actions and wage disputes into transformative democratic struggles.
The top levels of the ACFTU played a decisive role in drafting and promoting the Labor Law of 2008, which signaled a radical improvement in the rights of the working class. It empowered workers to channel their unrest against bad employment conditions, by using the law as the basis around which to organize their struggles.
The Labor Law brought significant benefits to the workers; it forced employers to sign contracts with employees within one month of their start date, it secured permanent employment status for long-term employees, and it guaranteed that workers would be consulted on all important issues. Soon after the law was passed, workers secured higher wages and better conditions throughout China.
Membership of the ACFTU has sky-rocketed. It grew from 87 million in 1999 to over 258 million in 2012. This exponential growth is due to both top-down and bottom-up unionization drives. From the top, the formal recognition of trade unions provides a framework within which workers can effectively demand their rights, and from below, grassroots union branches can help to foster mass democratic participation. The institutional support that the ACFTU provides is of important symbolic significance, acting as an organic link between the Communist Party of China and the working class.
Since May 2011, a revolutionary legal framework for the universal democratic management of enterprises has been in effect in the Shanghai municipality. *1
Under the regulations, all enterprises, including those in Hong Kong, Macao, as well as Taiwanese, foreign and private enterprises, are obliged to operate under the "Workers' Congress system". The system provides for the democratic management of enterprises and stipulates that workers have the right to elect, supervise and recall their managers. The regulations envisage and promote the formation of area-wide and industry-wide Workers' Congresses. If these regulations can be turned into reality, Shanghai's workers will have greater democratic rights at work than their counterparts in any capitalist country.
The democratic participation of the urban masses in shaping their communities and environment is also a pressing and vital issue. Under the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-15) 36 million public sector apartments are to be completed. This is virgin territory where the democratization of urban life can be realized in new and innovative ways by drawing on global historical experience.
In the 1920s, German communists and radical artists collaborated to form the Bauhaus, a multidisciplinary arts movement that sought to create environments and products for new forms of individual and social life. This was not simply a question of designing and constructing buildings of aesthetic quality, but was a means of conceptualizing new ways of living, which placed art at the center of social transformation.
Xu Jiang, president of the China Academy of Art, boldly claimed that the planned Bauhaus Research Institute in Hangzhou, will bring "inspiration and innovation to start China's creative revolution." The institute can provide an important impetus to combine revolutionary ideas in art and design with urban democracy, based on the energy of the inhabitants, who will shape the character of life in China's new public apartments. *2
The extent of democratic control will play a big role in determining whether people feel they live in a happy and collectivist environment or in a concrete jungle.
Throughout the world, where there are systems of democratic control and supervision over local government agencies, they help to ensure that mass public housing and services are seen as the valued property of the people.
Modern communications technology means that China's social housing revolution can engage residents in the planning process at the earliest stages. Sample buildings designed by artists and architects should offer tenants a large choice of interior designs, furniture and household goods. Where necessary, these products can be produced on demand, using the latest manufacturing techniques and advanced material sciences. This will enable the people to decide how their apartments should be laid out, decorated and furnished, and the ways in which collective space should be populated, designed and used. The formation of public services and facilities to serve these new communities will also be enhanced by popular democratic participation and control.
If art, science, culture and technique are combined with vibrant democratic Workers' Congresses, the impulses and productive power of China's proletariat will create a harmonious socialist democracy, laying the foundations for a truly Communist society.
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