The Xintang area of Zengcheng, in China’s southern Guangzhou province, annually produces 260 million pairs of jeans, 60% of China’s and a third of the world’s output for more than 60 international brands. Known as the ‘jeans capital of the world’ it is in some ways symbolic of Chinese economic development over the last thirty years. In June, demonstrations and clashes with the police in angry protests by thousands of workers against the treatment of a pregnant 20-year-old, hint at the reality experienced by workers in the heart of an ‘economical miracle’.
Workers attacked government buildings, overturned police cars and battled with police. Against the protests the Chinese state sent in 6000 paramilitary police with armoured vehicles, deploying tear gas as they attacked up to 10,000 workers.
After strikes at Honda last year spread, the company conceded substantial wage increases. In the face of these recent protests by workers, many of whom were rural migrants, the state offered residency rights to anyone who would identify rioters. In Chinese cities those without household registry are not entitled to healthcare, education and other social benefits.
The days of protests in Zengcheng are not isolated incidents. A week previously “migrants from Sichuan clashed with police and overturned cars in Chaozhou, about 210 miles east of Guangzhou, after a worker demanding two months of back wages was allegedly attacked by the boss of the ceramics factory where he had worked” (Los Angeles Times 13/6/11).
As the Financial Times (17/6/11) put it “Although similar demonstrations are relatively common in China, in both cases a standoff between police and angry citizens quickly descended into violence.”
The bourgeois press has highlighted the fact that migrant workers have been involved in these conflicts. In China there are 153 million migrant workers living outside their hometowns. Leaving rural areas they go to work on construction sites, factories, restaurants and new projects as they occur. Sixty per cent of them are under 30, and, when questioned in surveys, the younger workers are much more likely to say that they would take part in collective actions than older workers. Workers now working in urban areas mostly have no intention of returning to the countryside, with very few, for example, having any farming experience.
Also, as evidence of the degree of attachment to their place of origin, younger workers “tend to remit less money to home villagers. The National Bureau of Statistics found that in 2009 young migrants sent back about 37.2 percent of their income, while older migrants sent back 51.1 percent” (Reuters 28/6/11).
The response of Chinese capitalism
Whether dealing with strikes or other protests “the first instinct of China’s government, at both local and national level, is to use force. Suppression can work for a while. But if the underlying causes are not addressed, China risks an explosion” (FT 19/6/11). This doesn’t of course mean that China is going to let up on repression.
Bloomberg (6/3/11) reported that “China spent more on its internal police force than on its armed forces in 2010, and plans to do the same this year, as the government deployed security forces around the country to control growing social unrest”. As the article continues “The surge in public security spending comes as so-called mass incidents, everything from strikes to riots and demonstrations, are on the rise. There were at least 180,000 such incidents in 2010, twice as many as in 2006” according to Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. The concern of the Chinese ruling class is partly at the proliferation of ‘mass incidents’ but also “The perception that local protests might be gaining a broader national coherence is deeply threatening to China’s Communist Party” (FT 19/6/11).
This doesn’t mean that the Chinese bourgeoisie can deal with the ‘underlying causes’ of unrest. What lies behind protests and strikes, fundamentally, are the conditions in which workers live and work. And without the imposition of these conditions China’s economic growth would not have been possible.
Chinese capitalism can’t offer meaningful material improvements to millions of workers, and that’s why it risks an ‘explosion’. But it does know it needs something other than repression. As the Bloomberg article notes “Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee who oversees the country’s security forces, said in a Feb. 21 article in the People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, that the government must ‘defuse social conflicts and disputes just as they ‘germinate’”.
In general the Chinese bourgeoisie lacks the means to defuse conflict in its early stages. The official unions are inflexible, widely distrusted and rightly perceived as being part of the state. Those ‘independent’ unions that have existed have been in on a very limited scale. It is interesting, therefore, to note that Han Dongfan, an activist who set up a union during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, is revising his view of the official unions.
In a Guardian (26/6/11) article he says that recent protests and demands for improved wages and conditions show that “with no real trade union that can articulate those demands, workers are left with little option but to take to the streets”. He thinks that “This new era of activism has forced China’s official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, to re-examine its role and look for ways to become an organisation that really does represent workers’ interests”. The Chinese ruling class certainly wishes that the official unions had more influence with the working class, but for workers there is no form of union organisation that can answer their needs. For the working class it’s not a matter of swapping one sort of union for another but finding the means for the most effective collective action. The fact that strikes and demonstrations so quickly end up in confrontations with the police is one piece of evidence that demonstrates to workers the need for their struggles, ultimately, to create a force that will be able to destroy the Chinese capitalist state.