Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2019, China has been the scene of some of the most brutal and dystopian lockdowns in the world, with tens of millions locked up for weeks on end, lacking the most basic necessities and under constant police repression. It has also been the scene of the most impressive mobilization of resources to fight the virus: production of health care equipment was dramatically ramped up, hospitals were built in a matter of days, and thousands of medical staff were transferred to crisis areas.
This highlights the deeply contradictory nature of China, which is not a capitalist state but a deformed workers state. On the one hand, the state still rests on the gains of the 1949 Revolution, which liberated the country from imperialism and established a planned economy. On the other, the country is ruled by a bureaucratic caste led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that oppresses the working class and undermines these gains. With the U.S. and its allies’ constant ramping up of military and economic threats against China, and with the social contradictions within the country heating up to a boiling point, it is more important than ever for Marxists to have a correct understanding of China and to fight for a program in the pandemic that will further the cause of Chinese workers, as well as that of the entire international working class.
So far, the Marxist left has utterly failed at this task. During the initial phase of the pandemic, the CCP’s “zero-Covid” policy of strict lockdowns, travel bans and massive testing was the model for the whole left, from Stalinists to social democrats to so-called Trotskyists. As the decaying capitalist classes around the world were utterly incapable of doing anything properly, the Chinese bureaucracy was hailed internationally as showing the way. The International Communist League was no exception, and it is worth quoting at length what we wrote in “China Mobilizes to Contain Coronavirus” (Workers Vanguard No. 1171, 6 March 2020):
These lines are nothing but an uncritical endorsement of the policies of the CCP. Uncritical, since our only criticisms of the bureaucracy were that its measures were “belated” and followed attempts at a cover-up, but when “Beijing” (i.e., the central government) finally moved, our differences vanished. Grotesquely, the article relies on the W.H.O., an arm of the imperialist UN, to sing the praises of the CCP. We repudiate this article, which was a betrayal of Trotskyist principle.
While the capitalist countries have moved away from lockdowns toward a strategy of “living with the virus,” the CCP is firmly clinging to its reactionary “zero-Covid” strategy. This now provokes the anger of the imperialist powers, who feel its impact on their economic growth. In lockstep, the majority of the “socialist” left internationally has now either flipped 180 degrees to condemn China’s policies or is simply remaining silent on the issue. But for most fake socialists worldwide, this situation is very awkward since the CCP is implementing what they have been advocating for over two and a half years: harsh and long lockdowns until cases are zero.
Since April 2021, the ICL has made a clear case as to why the proletariat in capitalist countries must oppose the lockdowns, how its interests collide at every step with bourgeois class rule and why the capitalist response to the pandemic is counterposed to any progressive struggle by the working class to better its conditions (see “Down With the Lockdowns!”). We now apply this basic approach to China. The main argument that has been made for supporting the Chinese lockdowns, including within our organization, is that since China is not a capitalist state, its lockdowns have a more progressive character than those of the capitalists. It is true that the collectivized core of the economy allows China to confront the threat of Covid-19 by mobilizing resources on a scale impossible in capitalist countries. However, these resources are not mobilized in accordance with the interests of the working class but according to the interests of the privileged bureaucratic caste that has ruled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its founding. This bureaucracy is fundamentally of the same nature as that which ruled the Soviet Union since 1924 and which was best analyzed by Leon Trotsky. He explained:
The social roots of the bureaucracy lie in the backwardness and material poverty of an isolated workers state. With the development of the productive forces too low to provide for everyone’s wants, the bureaucracy derives its power from its role as the arbiter of scarcity, deciding who has and who goes without. As opposed to a ruling capitalist class, whose power is based on its ownership of the means of production, the bureaucracy exists as a parasite on the collectivized property forms, making its rule unstable and brittle. It is caught between two powerful forces: the giant Chinese proletariat, which is necessarily hostile to the privileges of the ruling clique, and world imperialism, whose goal is the final overthrow of the gains of the 1949 Revolution (and the CCP itself) for the purpose of pillaging China.
The maintenance of the bureaucracy’s privileged position forces it to balance untenable contradictions. On the one hand, it will defend state property “only to the extent that it fears the proletariat” (Trotsky). On the other, it seeks to appease world imperialism through concessions, in the pursuit of an illusory “peaceful coexistence.” The primary goal of the bureaucracy is always to navigate these contradictions with the purpose of maintaining its privileged position, a task rendered particularly difficult in times of acute social crisis like the pandemic.
The Trotskyist approach to the pandemic in China starts with the unconditional defense of the collectivized forms of property from internal and external counterrevolutionary threats. It is also based on the understanding that the rule of the CCP bureaucracy, by suppressing the proletariat, fostering inequalities and rejecting international revolution, fuels social, economic, military and political threats to the workers state. When a crisis grows from the fertile ground plowed by the bureaucracy, the CCP responds with its short-sighted and brutal methods, which in turn sow the seeds of the next crisis. Therefore, the Trotskyist defense of the workers state—whether in a pandemic, wartime or any other crisis—is based not on supporting the policies of the bureaucracy but on the struggle to overthrow the anti-socialist, bureaucratic CCP clique through a proletarian political revolution, and to replace its rule with workers councils led by a revolutionary, authentically Leninist party. Such a perspective is obviously irreconcilable with supporting the CCP’s reckless and anti-proletarian “dynamic zero-Covid” policies.
The Social Causes of the Pandemic
The social crisis in China triggered by Covid-19 is rooted in the general want, oppression and barbarity brought about by decaying world imperialism and, as in every other country, takes its particular national physiognomy from domestic social and economic conditions. Before hailing the “Herculean efforts” of Beijing in response to the outbreak of Covid-19, those who call themselves socialists might want to reflect on the social conditions at the root of the current crisis. Social and living conditions in China have improved tremendously in the last decades, made possible by the gains of the 1949 Revolution. But the rule of the bureaucracy has meant that the growth of productivity and wealth has disproportionately been funneled into its own hands and those of a rising domestic capitalist class. This limits and undermines social progress and has laid the ground for the current crisis.
The bureaucracy has explicitly argued from the beginning that lockdowns are the only option given the poor condition of the health care system. For decades, the PRC had free, universal health care under conditions of “socialized misery.” But the market reforms pursued by successive CCP leaderships over decades have privatized and starved health care. While the bureaucracy claims that 95 percent of Chinese citizens are covered by medical insurance, this is a deception: for hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and peasants, seeing a doctor or receiving basic medical treatment is either a very expensive nightmare or simply impossible. The various insurance schemes usually cover only a fraction of costs, and it is common for families to have to spend lifelong accumulated savings for treatment.
In the countryside, many regions do not have even basic medical infrastructure, and the hated hukou household registration system means the vast majority of migrant workers in the cities receive little or no treatment where they work. China has a very low number of doctors (in 2017, 2 per 1,000 people compared with 2.6 in the U.S. and 4.9 in the European Union [EU]); a low number of nurses (2.7 per 1,000 compared with 15.7 in the U.S. and 9.1 in the EU); and a low number of critical care beds (3.6 for 100,000 compared with 25.8 in the U.S. and 11.5 in the EU). In 2019, China spent $535 per capita on health care, compared with almost $12,000 in the U.S. and $3,500 in Europe.
The scarcity of medical resources means that the health care system is rife with corruption and profiteering. In order to make up for the scarcity of real medical services, particularly in rural regions, the bureaucracy openly promotes traditional medicine. In the land of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” adequate medical treatment is reserved for those capitalists and privileged bureaucrats who can afford it, while poor people often simply die of treatable diseases.
Having devastated the health care system, the market reforms have also privatized real estate in cities, which is under the control of parasitic companies whose sole purpose is speculation, as exemplified by the recent downfall of the Evergrande Group. For many urban working people, housing is tremendously expensive, leading to overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions that necessarily fuel the spread of Covid-19 and other diseases.
The other factor leading to the spread of Covid-19 and generally affecting the health of working people is the workplace. Central to the market reforms has been the opening of China to foreign investment and the conscious development, through the encouragement of the CCP, of a domestic capitalist class. One of the main consequences of this policy has been the passage of hundreds of millions of peasants into the proletariat. While this is a historically progressive development, these workers make up a vast pool of cheap labor for capitalist companies.
Brutal working conditions are widespread in China—as seen in the vicious “996” system of 72-hour workweeks—and the unprecedented rise of China is fueled by superexploitation of workers. The state-owned enterprises have not been spared the harsh conditions. Many workplaces operate under a quasi-military system of labor, approved and implemented by the CCP-controlled trade unions and party committees in the companies, under which, needless to say, workers have no say on health and safety or their general working conditions. Unemployment and homelessness are a common plague in the People’s Republic. Air pollution caused by bureaucratic mismanagement and unrestricted capitalist pillage has become such a problem in large cities that respiratory disease occurs at a much higher rate than in most countries, which places large sections of the population at greater risk of complications from Covid-19.
This is the tinderbox that was lit by the outbreak of Covid-19. As for the origins of Covid itself, there is still a heated dispute over the question. The bureaucracy is adamant that the “lab leak” theory is pure lie and conspiracy theory. Lawyering for the CCP, the Internationalist Group (IG) has written a long piece against this theory, implying that raising any doubt about the bureaucracy’s narrative means attacking China (“U.S. Big Lie Over Wuhan Is War Propaganda,” internationalist.org, December 2021). There is no scientific consensus as to the origins of Covid-19. But even if we take the IG and the CCP’s preferred version that it originated in the Wuhan wildlife food market—and this is the most likely one—it is still just as incriminating of the bureaucracy! Lack of hygiene and controls and the mixing of wild animals in highly dense urban areas have already led to outbreaks in the past, as in 2002 with SARS. The outbreak of Covid-19 was not an “act of God” but was totally preventable, starting with cracking down on wildlife markets selling live bats in major urban centers.
The false view promoted by the CCP and its apologists is that its lockdowns and policies are the best and only solution to confront the pandemic. The truth is that the current economic, social and health crisis is in fact largely the result of the bureaucracy’s policies.
How to Address the Social Causes of the Pandemic
The most immediate measure to address the underlying social causes of the crisis is to drastically reduce inequalities within China and redistribute resources in order to improve living conditions. For example, liquidating the capitalist class and confiscating the wealth of the bureaucracy could fund massive improvements in the health care system, particularly in rural regions, with the short-term aim of providing free health care of the highest possible quality on an egalitarian basis. Living conditions could be improved with the immediate redistribution of housing stock according to social needs, privileging workers instead of well-connected bureaucrats. To have safe workplaces, workers need to control health and safety. But all of these elementary and essential measures directly clash with the bureaucracy. This is not only because they mean an open repudiation of decades of bankrupt policies; more fundamentally, they run directly against the interests of the bureaucracy, whose entire existence is based on ensuring material advantages for themselves at the expense of the working class and peasantry. Furthermore, many individual bureaucrats are related to or are themselves capitalists.
While redistributing the existing resources can provide immediate relief, the only solution to break out of the material backwardness of China is the international extension of socialist revolution, particularly to the imperialist countries. The transition to socialism can only be assured with an international planned economy, in which the threat of imperialism has been removed and development is based on the highest level of technology and labor productivity, which currently is monopolized by the most powerful imperialist countries. Such a perspective can only be realized through the revolutionary mobilization of the proletariat in China and internationally, a perspective that is antithetical to the Stalinist bureaucracy because it would unleash forces leading to the overthrow of the privileged caste. This is why the hallmark of Stalinism has always been the program of building “socialism in one country,” which goes hand in hand with the dogma that “China does not export revolution.”
This anti-Marxist program is a reflection of the position and interests of the bureaucracy and is conceived explicitly to appease imperialism. Limiting socialist construction within set national borders is a pledge to the imperialist powers that the workers state will not be a threat to the international capitalist order. This program has led to the strangulation of the Chinese (1927), German (1933), French (1936 and 1968), Spanish (1937) and Indonesian (1965) revolutions, and more. But as Trotsky explained in regard to the USSR:
This totally applies to China and is at the heart of the renewed U.S.-led imperialist drive against the PRC. No matter how “reliable” and “moderate” the CCP bureaucracy presents itself, no matter how much it represses the Chinese working class, in the eyes of the international bourgeoisie it will always be stained by the mark of social revolution. Far from securing the gains of the Chinese Revolution, the CCP rejects the only way to truly guarantee their defense: the international extension of the revolution. This basic cornerstone of Trotskyism was decisively proved in the negative with the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92. Similarly in China, either CCP bureaucratic rule will be swept away and replaced by a revolutionary leadership or else counterrevolution will bring another “century of humiliation.”
The CCP’s Response
The CCP and its apologists are singing the praises of China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” approach. Here is one of the countless examples to be found in the CCP press:
The criteria the CCP uses to gloat about the “success” of the party are the low mortality rate, the suppression of the virus inside China’s borders and continued economic growth. If your whole approach is dictated by ticking these boxes, the CCP has indeed done great.
But this is not how revolutionaries evaluate the successes and failures of a workers state. In response to the Stalinist bureaucracy boasting about the industrialization of the USSR and the successful liquidation of the kulaks (rich peasants), Trotsky explained:
Weighed on the scale of “conscious foresight and planned leadership,” the CCP’s response to the pandemic is a failure at every level. As explained above, the policies of successive CCP regimes have greatly increased the risk of the emergence of a new dangerous virus, of its rapid propagation to an epidemic level and of the collapse of the health care system. As for its response since the outbreak of the virus, the CCP’s actions have at every step exacerbated the crisis.
Its immediate reaction to the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, as widely recognized (even by the pro-CCP Workers Vanguard article), was one of cover-ups, denials and crackdowns on those raising the alarm.As it became obvious that the virus was sparking a major social crisis with hospitals in Wuhan overflowing and popular discontent rising, the CCP drastically changed its stance, introducing draconian measures and mobilizing massive resources to suppress the outbreak.
The bureaucracy’s measures do indeed suppress the propagation of the virus (for a time). These are driven not by some moral commitment to “save the people” but by a need to suppress the social contradictions highlighted and exacerbated by the virus. Covid-19 posed in a burning way the social and economic needs of the proletariat: better health care, housing, working conditions. But these needs collided with the realities of China, an isolated workers state plagued by scarcity, bureaucratism, inequality and a parasitic political regime.
What was posed for the working class was to tie the immediate struggle against the threat posed by Covid-19 to the struggle to resolve the social conditions at the root of the crisis. For the bureaucracy, what was posed was to contain the outbreak in order to maintain social stability, assure the CCP’s political control over the response to Covid-19 and, centrally, crush any social aspirations of the working class that would put its rule in question. These were and still are the political considerations guiding the bureaucracy’s response to Covid-19 outbreaks. The one new element is that, now that it is heavily invested in the “dynamic zero-Covid” policy that proves the “superiority” and “omniscience” of the Xi Jinping-led CCP, no turning back is possible without major discredit to the regime. That said, as the disastrous consequences of its policy pile up, the bureaucracy may very well be forced to make an about-face, as is characteristic of Stalinist zigzags
The CCP claims its policies are put in place to protect the people. But why is it that the people are forcibly locked in their homes against their will, subject to the surveillance of drones, robots and neighborhood committees? Why is it that when the people raise criticisms, complaints and suggestions, they are subject to total censorship and sometimes imprisonment? Is it for the people that workers are being locked in their factories, prevented from getting home? If “dynamic zero-Covid” is supposed to be “for the people,” why is it being implemented against the people?
The answer is simple: the CCP bureaucracy’s entire existence is based on oppressing the people. Its accumulation of privileges is outright theft, an abuse of power that flies in the face of all socialist principles. Since its rule is based on absolute political control of the governing apparatus, any independent expression of the workers’ needs and interests necessarily challenges the legitimacy of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It cannot let the workers speak their minds because the first words out of their mouths would be a condemnation of inequality, bureaucratic mismanagement and political repression. For the sake of its own maintenance, the bureaucracy suppresses any sense of initiative, critical thought or constructive input from the masses of workers.
The CCP has indeed been successful in keeping the death rate low. But what this statistic hides is the real horror caused by the bureaucracy’s policies. It conceals the hundreds of millions locked up in their homes for weeks on end without proper food, medication or other basic necessities. Hospitals overflowing, refusing treatment, with medical staff pressed to the extreme limit. Imprisonment in Kafkaesque quarantine centers, separating families, including children from their parents. Workers chained to their machines and locked up in factories. Unemployment and the devastation of small businesses. Widespread censorship and arrest of anyone who dares question any of this. And all done in the name of building “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which can only contribute to discrediting socialism in the eyes of workers and the poor and help the camp of counterrevolution.
The Trotskyist Answer
Contrary to the lies of the CCP, it is perfectly possible to protect the population’s health and defend the People’s Republic without the brutal and anti-proletarian methods imposed by the bureaucracy. Fighting Covid-19 is necessarily a political task. The CCP mobilized the population behind Chinese nationalism and support for the infallibility of Xi Jinping. For Trotskyists, the struggle against Covid-19 starts under the banner of socialist revolutions in the capitalist countries, unconditional defense of China against counterrevolution and political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucrats. Here is what authentic communists must fight for in China:
Down with the lockdowns! Mandatory vaccination now! The CCP bureaucracy is perfectly willing to lock up millions for months with endless mass testing, but they won’t even take the basic measure of vaccinating the entire population. While Shanghai was under a brutal lockdown for over two months, 38 percent of its population aged 60 and above was not fully vaccinated.
For workers control of safety and production! Workers must be the ones deciding what is safe and how factories should be run, not some pen-pushing bureaucrat or bloodsucking capitalist. For trade unions free of bureaucratic control and committed to defending collectivized property!
For the revision of the planned economy from top to bottom in the interests of producers and consumers! This must ensure the establishment of free health care and education for all, as well as quality housing for working people. Away with the hukou system!
Expropriate the domestic capitalist class! These leeches are the embryos of capitalist counterrevolution, incubated by the CCP bureaucracy. End the “one country, two systems” policy by expropriating the Hong Kong tycoons!
Workers of the world, unite! The ally of the Chinese working class is the international proletariat, crucially in the imperialist centers, the U.S., Germany and Japan. The bureaucracy’s reactionary international policy of conciliation and capitulation to the imperialists must be replaced by the policy of proletarian internationalism. Publish the complete diplomatic correspondence of Beijing. Down with secret diplomacy!
Oust the Stalinist bureaucracy! For a Leninist egalitarian party, part of a reforged Fourth International! The road forward for the Chinese workers and peasants is that of Lenin and Trotsky, not Mao or Stalin. This means soviet democracy and revolutionary internationalism on the model of the great 1917 October Revolution!
1. We are eagerly awaiting the article promised in the IG’s December 2021 “lab leak” piece, which will apparently expose “the Big Lie” that “Beijing early on supposedly tried to hide, cover up errors and repress information about the pandemic.”