Dagongmei – behind the Chinese economic miracle

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Pun Ngai is professor at the Social Research Center of the Peking University and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. At present she is on tour in five European countries to present the book "DAGONGMEI - women workers from Chinas world market factories tell their story" (Arbeiterinnen aus Chinas Weltmarktfabriken erzählen) which she has published together with her colleague Li Wanwei from the Industrial Relations institute in Hong Kong[1]. The occasion for this series of public talks is not least the appearance of their book in German.

October 10 2008 Pun Ngai presented this book in Cologne. Given the importance of the economic and military rise of China in recent decades, and the questions posed in relation to the future of this "economic miracle" in the light of the present agonies of world capitalism, it was no surprise that there was a big turnout for the Cologne meeting.

The subject of study of Pun Ngai is migrant labour within China - the proletarianisation of 120 Million peasants during the last 25 years - in particular the conditions of the "Dagongmei", literally the "working sisters". Pun Ngai and Li Wanwei present a series of interviews with young working women who have come from rural areas to the industrial city of Shenzhen in Southern China, one of the first of the special economic zones created by the Chinese government to attract foreign capital. In her presentation, Pun Ngai gave examples from the personal experience of such workers.

But above all, she was concerned to place this experience in a more global context, to "make sense" of developments which, without doubt, are of world wide importance. She put forward two main arguments which are at the centre of her analysis of developments in China.

Production and reproduction of labour power

The first is the separation between the sphere of production, which takes place in the cities, and the sphere of reproduction in the rural areas. A large part of the labour power for the "world market" factories is recruited in the countryside. The reproduction costs of this labour are borne by the peasant families themselves, on the basis of tiny subsistence plots of land. This explains to an large extent why the wages in China can be so much lower than in the older and more developed capitalist countries of the West or in Japan, where wage labour is for the most part reproduced on the basis of the wage labour system (in other words: where wages have to cover not only the reproduction costs of the workers themselves, but also of their children, the future generation of proletarians).

However, as was pointed out in the ensuing discussion, this "secret" of capitalist development is no Chinese specificity, but provides the basis for similar developments elsewhere in Asia or on other continents. Many of those who came to this meeting were looking for an answer to the question why China seems to have been more successful in this development than most of its rivals.

Dormitory capitalism

Here, the second main idea put forward by Pun Ngai is of great importance. This is what she calls the dormitory system. In Maoist China, (as in Stalinist Russia, we might add[2]) the free movement of labour within the country was not permitted. In particular, the whole population was registered as being either urban or rural dwellers. A peasant needed permission to move to the city and visa versa. With the economic "reforms" from Deng onwards, this restriction of the movement of labour was maintained. At first sight, that is surprising, in view of capital's need for free movement of labour in order to thrive. But the maintenance of these regulations make of the migrants in the cities "illegals" in their "own" country, without insurance, health care or educational facilities. Nor do they have the opportunity to form working class communities of their own in the urban centres. They are obliged to live in dormitories owned by the bosses. As such they are constantly under the control of their employers. As Pun Ngai pointed out, they cannot refuse to sell their bodies without facing eviction and being sent back to their villages. They are at any moment at the disposal of the "just in time" production which the world market requires. Moreover, as the victims of this system themselves say, they are "instantly disposable", "throw away" workers who can be sent back to the countryside as soon as they are no longer required or when their health has been ruined.

16-year old girls applying toxic glue with bare hands

Pun Ngai compared this process of proletarianisation with that in the first industrial country, in Great Britain, as described by Friedrich Engels in his famous study of the conditions of the working class in Britain. While pointing out the existence of a number of similarities, she also underlined two differences. For one thing, in Britain the point of departure for the rise of modern capitalism was the violent separation of the producers from the means of production, of the peasants from their land. In China, the Maoist land reforms left the peasantry with tiny private plots of their own, enough to avoid starvation, but not enough to live on. For this reason, the migration of the rural poor is "voluntary", officially taking place in infringement of the laws of the state. Moreover, young women in particular are motivated by cultural factors (as was pointing out during the discussion) in fleeing the backward, patriarchal world of the village. Secondly, as has already been pointed out, there is the specificity (Pun Ngai called it an incompleteness) of this proletarianisation, that the workers are kept under the threat of being sent back to the countryside. She stressed the traumatisms caused by the insecurity of this "in between status", which in the long term is unbearable.

In reply to a question from the floor, she pointed out that the Chinese government is presently considering the possibilities of a land reform facilitating the acquirement of private land. But the meaning of this "reform" would not be to permit the peasantry to enlarge their plots, which would make subsistence farming more feasible, and thus put a break on migration from rural areas. What is planned is essentially the encouragement of large landed estates, which on the contrary would fan the flames of this migration and provide new supplies of cheap labour in the cities.

A new generation of workers

Concerning the effects of these historical developments on the working class, Pun Ngai distinguished between the first and second generation of migrants. The first generation still had the hope of saving money and returning home. The men could hope to modernise their plots of land, the women to set up a small shops. But for the vast majority, such dreams were never realised, and many of those who attempted them ended up in financial ruin. The first generation was traumatised by this experience, marked by despair and an internalisation of their anger.

As opposed to this, the motto of the new generation is "no regrets" about leaving their villages. They are determined never to go back. The energy of these workers is directed towards the future and the outside, expressing itself in collective class actions. According to official figures, between 1993 and 2005 the number of registered "collective incidents" per year increased from 10,000 to 87,000. In the past three years in particular almost all parts of the class have shared experiences of this type. Protests and petitions are directed not only towards the employers but also the state administration and the official trade union apparatus. Pun Ngai reported discussions where militant minorities of workers were saying: "We must search for a great ideal! We need new internal values!"

These ideas, she said, are becoming more widespread today. She also reported that the women workers in particular are in some cases starting to transform the dormitories into places of contact, dissent and organisation between workers.

Participants also posed more general political questions. Somebody wanted to know when she thought China would become a democracy. She replies that this was not really her concern, and that democracy was something which needs definition. Her concern is the development of what she called grass roots democracy in the class. In reply to the question if workers today refer positively to what the questioner called the "socialism" of Mao, and if they have learnt anything positive from this "socialist" education for their present struggle, she said that workers sometimes use quotations from Mao in order to legally justify certain demands towards the state. On the attempts to stir up patriotic feelings about the new "greatness of China" (for instance on the occasion of the Olympic games) among the workers she said that this was fostered both by the west (through its aggressive discourse) and by the Chinese rulers themselves, and is a negative factor against the working class.

Of course everybody wanted to know how Pun Ngai expected the present world wide financial crisis would affect China. She said that it was likely to cause widespread unemployment and increase poverty, given the country's dependence on exports. After several years of rising wages, not least under the pressure of workers militancy, this would be likely to diminish the "bargaining power" of many sectors of the working class.

So many questions were posed by the floor that in the end there was unfortunately no time for the foreseen general discussion. However, it was pointed out that the system of making labour power illegal but tolerated, and thus particularly cheap and pliable, is not specific to China, but is increasing all over the world, including Europe and the United States. The specificity of China is the scale on which this weapon is employed. The dormitories regularly house between 5,000 and 10,000 workers per unit. The agglomerations of these compounds often cover areas as large as average European size cities.

In conclusion we can safely say that those who came to the meeting were profoundly moved by the presence, the combativity and the clarity of analysis of a representative of the working class from China[3].

Capitalism means world economy. Through world wide interconnection and the development of the class struggle, capitalism, against its own will, is creating conditions for the unification of its own gravediggers.


[1] Pun Ngai has already, in 1995, published, in English, a book called "Made in China". Li Wanwei has published a thesis on: "The Dynamics of Restructuring and Relocation: The Case of Hong Kong's Garment Industry".

Both women are involved in the "Chinese Working Women Network" (www.cwwn.org).

[2] South Africa under apartheid adopted a not dissimilar system with its "Bantustans".

[3] It should be noted that, as a result of the opening of China to the world market, left intellectuals there are becoming more acquainted with a wider range of Marxist literature, such as the works of Rosa Luxemburg.