While an analysis of commodity production is illuminating, it is more politically potent to approach the issue from the other direction: rather than ask what capital demands in order to ensure its own continual expansion, we should ask how human beings survive. How then does the Chinese proletariat—a group of people whose only productive property is their own labor power—ensure its own social reproduction? The answer is, as with every other capitalist society, that proletarians must figure out some way to attach themselves to capital if they are to live. Basic needs such as food, housing, education, health care, transportation, and time for leisure and socializing are not guaranteed as a matter of course. Rather, the vast majority of people in China can only secure such items if they are first able to make themselves useful for capital.
Chinese society is of course highly heterogeneous, striated with socio-economic division and corollary diversity in subsistence strategies. The most demographically and politically relevant category for elucidating the argument at hand is that of the migrant worker. Consisting of nearly three hundred million people living outside their place of official household registration (hukou), this is a gargantuan labor force and the backbone of China’s industrial transformation. Once a migrant worker leaves their place of hukou registration they forsake any right to state-subsidized reproduction, effectively rendering them a second class citizen within their own country. It is perhaps obvious that the only reason hundreds of millions of people would make this choice is because they cannot survive in the impoverished rural areas from which they hail, and they are compelled by market forces to seek work in the urban centers.
Capitalist labor relations were politically contentious when they first appeared in China in the late 1970s as many in the CCP still supported the Maoist “iron rice bowl” system of lifetime employment. But by the 1990s, that debate had been laid to rest, signaled most clearly by 1994’s Labor Law which established a legal framework for wage labor. Rather than ushering in a highly-regulated labor market in the social democratic mold (as was the wish of many reformers), labor has been commodified but remains highly informalized. Even after the implementation of 2008’s Labor Contract Law, which was specifically focused on increasing the prevalence of legal labor contracts, the number of migrant workers with contracts fell over the course of the early 2010s, with only 35.1 per cent having coverage as of 2016.
Workers without a contract do not enjoy legal protections, making it extremely difficult to address labor rights violations. Furthermore, social insurance—including health insurance, pensions, workplace injury insurance, unemployment, and “birth insurance”—is employer-based. Being relegated to labor informality produces other forms of exclusion and market dependence for people living outside their area of hukou registration. If, for instance, a non-local wants to enroll their child in an urban public school, the first requirement is to produce a local labor contract—this stipulation alone eliminates a large majority of migrants from public schooling. Although the mechanisms for distributing nominally public goods such as education vary widely by city, the general logic is to advantage those that the state has determined are useful in upgrading the local economy. Many large cities have “point-based” plans in which applicants must accumulate points based on a series of labor market-oriented metrics (e.g. highest level of education, skill certifications, “model worker” awards) in order to access public services. Everyone else is left to the whims of the market.
The situation for urban proletarians who work in the same place as their hukou registration is somewhat different, and certainly better from a material standpoint. They will be able to get access to public schooling, possibly some housing subsidies, and are much more likely to have a legally-binding labor contract. Welfare benefits in China are not generous, and social spending as a share of GDP is far below the OECD average, but urban residents have a better chance of accessing them. Deep class and regional inequities as well as fiscal problems plague the system. As a result, there is no question that even these relatively privileged groups must make themselves useful to capital in order to secure adequate health care, decent housing, or security in retirement. The dibao livelihood program is not sufficient, nor is it intended, to support reproduction at a socially acceptable level.
Not only is China’s economy capitalist, but the state now rules in the general interest of capital. As with every other capitalist country, the Chinese state has its own relative autonomy, and one may quibble about which state has more autonomy. But it is apparent enough that the state has hitched its wagon to the star of capitalist value, which has effected a profound shift in governance.