Since ancient times, people have dreamed of a City of Youth, where the population never ages, and where any outsider who comes to live there will remain forever young. They probably did not have in mind, however, the “agelessness” of today’s Shenzhen, China. Lying just over the border from Hong Kong, this “instant city” has grown in just over twenty-five years from a small fishing village to a sprawling metropolitan region approaching ten million people. As the first Special Economic Zone in China, it was a model for the capitalistic “market reforms” and “opening to the world” initiated in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping. One of its most striking aspects is the low average age of its residents, which has hovered for years at around twenty-seven. This stands in ever sharper contrast to China as a whole, where the population is rapidly aging.
This article is based primarily on a series of meetings with workers, peasants, organizers, and leftist activists that I participated in during the summer of 2004, together with Alex Day and another student of Chinese affairs. It is part of a longer paper that is being published as a special report by the Oakland Institute. The meetings took place mainly in and around Beijing, as well as in Jilin province in the northeast, and in the cities of Zhengzhou and Kaifeng in the central province of Henan. What we heard reveals in stark fashion the effects of the massive transformations that have occurred in the three decades following the death of Mao Zedong, with the dismantling of the revolutionary socialist policies carried out under his leadership, and a return to the “capitalist road,” leaving the working classes in an increasingly precarious position. A rapidly widening polarization-in a society that was among the most egalitarian-is occurring between extremes of wealth at the top and growing ranks of workers and peasants at the bottom whose conditions of life are daily worsening. Exemplifying this, the 2006 Fortune list of global billionaires includes seven in mainland China and one in Hong Kong. Though their holdings are small compared to those in the United States and elsewhere, they represent the emergence of a full-blown Chinese capitalism. Rampant corruption unites party and state authorities and enterprise managers with the new private entrepreneurs in a web of alliances that are enriching a burgeoning capitalist class, while the working classes are exploited in ways that have not been seen for over half a century
After years of pro–market reforms, China faces a fundamental choice. Will it move toward private capitalism, or toward a renewal of the collective and socialist basis of its revolution? Red Cat, White Cat begins by examining the tensions growing within “market socialism.” Weil provides background on marketization, the class forces that produced it, and the polarization and social dislocation that it is generating.