China: the intensification of workers' struggles

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Over the last decade or so, the proletariat in China, and the rest of East Asia -  Burma, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam -  have all been involved in a wave of strikes and protests against capitalist exploitation. It's China we want to concentrate on here and to do so we will largely use the information given by the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), the publication of a non-governmental organisation based in Hong Kong with links to Human Rights groups and Radio Free Asia. The Bulletin promotes the idea of a “fairer” Chinese state, which includes advocating its adoption of “Free Trade Unions”.

In a subsequent piece, we will look at further recent elements around the “People's Republic”, including the development of imperialist tensions, decomposition and intrigues around the all-powerful Politburo. 

The class struggle

Throughout the last decade the working class in China has been involved in a wave of strikes and protests, counting thousands of workers, as anger and combativity mounts under the weight of capitalist exploitation. The spontaneous strikes, born from the workers themselves, have been over issues across the board: overtime pay, relocation compensation, corruption of officials, wage rises, wage and pension cuts, improved working conditions and reductions in hours, education and health benefits. In sum, the whole gamut of conditions expressed in the intensity of the exploitation of the Chinese state. While largely separate from each other these strikes have shown a definite dynamic and a growing strength to the extent that the China Briefing of 29.11.11 warns investors to get used to labour unrest.

Just a few days ago, in the town of Chongqing, the previous fiefdom of the disgraced Party boss Bo Xilai, there were strikes - unconnected to the Politburo manoeuvres - over wages and pension cuts. This town of 30 million in southern China, like many others, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy which is a growing concern (local bankruptcies are a big problem for capitalism, witness some states in the USA, regional governments in Spain, and so on). Against the struggle in Chongquing, the authorities, as elsewhere, blocked the microblogging that workers have used to communicate effectively with each other and spread news in the face of the state's blackout.

The China Labour Bulletin, 5.3.12, reports that strikes and protests continued across the county throughout February 2012, the vast majority taking place in the industrial/manufacturing and transport sectors, with demands mainly for higher wages and against bonus reductions. Five thousand workers at the Hanzhong Steel Co., at Shaanxi in the north, struck against low pay and long hours. Several thousand workers left the plant and made for the city streets in order to demonstrate. The report indicates that the workers elected their own representatives. The March issue of the Bulletin also records the highest monthly total of strikes since it began keeping records 15 months ago, and notes the escalation of strikes over pay and relocations. Riot squads and militia units are actively present in many cases and, apart from getting sacked, many militant workers have been “detained” - there's not a whimper about this from the human rights industry in the west. In China, repression and surveillance is of course the speciality of a Stalinist state and, like the Arab regimes, this state also uses gangs of armed thugs that it pays and  transports around the country for use against the workers. Internal police spending in China for 2010 and projected for 2011 outstrips the external defence budget – which is not inconsiderable[1].

Migrant labour is no longer docile

At the start of the 21st century, millions of poor, young, rural labourers flooded into the factory towns of South China looking for work. These young men and women worked for long hours for very low pay in often dangerous and unhealthy conditions. These were largely helpless lambs to the slaughter. It was upon this basis that the “Chinese Economic Miracle” was founded. But this enforced acquiescence did not last for long. Tempered in the heat of the class struggle, by the end of the decade the era of cheap and docile labour was well and truly over. A significant number of workers, still young but wiser, better educated, more confident and militant, were organising and undertaking strikes and protests. Summer 2010 culminated in a wave of strikes in the manufacturing sector[2].

In mid-decade, the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security estimated the number of migrant workers to be 240 million, including 150 million working away from home, with 70% of these in the manufacturing sector. Even with these numbers, labour shortages around 2005 saw workers' struggles taking a further step towards offensive struggles and demands with specific outbursts giving material encouragement for others to launch their own protests. The Chinese state records that there were 80,00 mass incidents in 2007 – the last time the state published official figures[3]. The CLB estimates these figures going up year on year since and the strikes taking on a different intensity. For example, in August 2011, thousands of laid-off workers, victims of China's National Petroleum Corporation restructuring, joined in with a demonstration of a thousand employed oil workers on strike for their own demands. This underlined the greater development of taking to the streets, blocking roads and demonstrations and sit-ins in public squares. Another aspect of the microblogging mentioned above was its use in the Nanhai Honda strike in 2010, where communications were established and a small group of workers set up called “Unity is Victory”. The Chinese authorities attempted to stop this form of communication under the guise of preventing “unfounded rumours”[4]. One of the Honda strike leaders told the New York Times that a minority of workers, about 40 in all, communicated and met up before the strike in order to decide on action and demands. At a PepsiCo strike in November 2011, workers elected their own delegates from their general meeting. Despite increases offered by the management, they extended and lengthened the action[5].

Many strikes end up with pay rises and some satisfaction of demands, but many do not. In both cases, workers are sacked and arrested. And where wage rises are given these are often wiped out by the inflation that is becoming a major curse for the Chinese economy. Wage demands are rising not just in the coastal regions, but, since 2010, in the hinterlands, where workers involved in action have family, friends, etc., posing the possibilities of strike action alongside social protest and thus widening the battlefront. On the other hand, migrant workers settled in other towns are often denied basic education and health benefits for them and their children – which their employers should pay but don't. This has opened another arena of confrontation. All this a far cry from a decade ago when these young, rural elements were used and dumped at will by the Chinese state. Unemployment also looms large with the Federation of Hong Kong Industries saying that a “a third of Hong Kong-owned industries will downsize or close”,  affecting tens of thousands of workers at the very least.

The China Labour Bulletin states that workers “had no confidence in the All China Federation of Trade Unions”[6] and its “ability to negotiate a decent pay increase”. They consequently “ took matters into their own hands and organised a wide range of increasingly effective collective actions...” ACFTU is clearly linked to the Party and made up of its members and cadres, and the CLB is drawing attention to a big problem facing the Chinese ruling class: the lack of effective trade unions to control and discipline the workers. Repression is never enough and can add fuel to the fire. As the CLB report notes over the Honda strike mentioned above: “Any workers' organisation that develops during a protest is usually disbanded after the demands that gave rise to it has been addressed”. The pro-state CLB would like to make these workers' organisation permanent and enmesh them into a structure of Free Trade Unions with peaceful relations with the state. The ACFTU branches, such as they exist, are sometimes made up exclusively of managers, such as at the Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen, where the twelve managers were all union officials! And in a pathetically desperate effort, which also points to the limits of the Stalinist state, the Shanxi Federation of Trade Unions has ordered its province’s 100,000 union officials to publish their phone numbers so that workers can get in touch with them!! Throughout the country, ACFTU branches have sacked workers, hired scabs and called the police and militias against workers. It is completely part of the discredited Party apparatus. The bourgeoisie, not just in China but internationally, need a renovated, elastic and credible union structure and this is where the China Labour Bulletin and its push for Free Trade Unions comes in. We can see this in its call for “greater participation (of workers) in committees and other union structures” and “new employees to be given information about the union's activities”, as after the recent Foxcomm struggles.

The unions in China – unlike their sophisticated brothers in the west – generally don't even see strikes coming let alone defuse and divide them. This was the case at the Honda car plant in Foshan south-eastern China last summer. It took two weeks and a large pay rise to get the workers back to work. Kong Xianghong, an ex-worker and veteran CP member and now a member of ACFTU, said after the strike (and a further rash of strikes that it provoked): “We realised the dangers of our union being divorced from the masses”. Kong added that China needed “To absorb the lessons of the uprisings in Arab nations”[7].

For the working class in China the struggles are intensifying and for the bourgeoisie the problems are mounting. For the latter, if they are at all a possibility, and that must be doubtful, Free Trade Unions would give them a greater element of control. For the workers, the lesson of the Free Trade Union Solidarnosc in Poland, is that these institutions can be more insidiously destructive to the workers' cause than the Party/State union structures – which at least show the unions as the anti-working class formations that they are.

Baboon. 15/4/12



[1]Bloomberg News, 6.3.11

[2]There were an estimated 180,000 “incidents” in 2010, Financial Times, 2.3.11.

[3]CASS, Social Trends Analysis and Projection Topic Group, 2008-2009.

[4]BBC News, 16.3.12.

[5]World Socialist Web: “Signs of a new strike wave in China”.

[6]“A Decade of Change: The Workers' Movement in China 2000-2010”.

[7]Washington Post, 29.4.11