China's new worker militants

Author: 
Camila Bassi

The Hong Kong based NGO China Labour Bulletin (CLB) was set up in 1994. Its founder, a former railway worker, helped establish - during the 1989 Tiananmen Square revolutionary uprising - the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation. This was China’s first, but short-lived, independent trade union. In March this year CLB produced a report assessing the development of the workers’ movement in China during the first decade of the twenty-first century. This article summarises the appraisal made in this report .

Han Dongfang, founder of the CLB, speaking in Tiananmen Square 1989 as a representative of China’s first and short-lived independent trade union.

The phenomenal rate of growth in China’s economy (an economy which surpassed Japan in 2011 to become the second largest in the world) was, by and large, on the sweat and toil of an apparently unlimited supply of impoverished labour from the rural hinterland to the southern coastal areas. As this growth rate slowed, China witnessed a rise in working class organisation, strike action and protest.

The restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) during the late 1990s and early 2000s and the rapid proliferation of private enterprises has shaped the workers’ movement in two key ways. On the one hand, the previous guarantee of an ‘iron rice bowl’ existence (a job, a home and welfare benefits) disappeared. While workers became unemployed, they observed their former bosses making money out of corrupt manipulation of the restructuring process (with, for instance, state assets being purchased at ludicrously low prices). One major focus of workers’ protest in the early millennium then was over the restructuring process, specifically, redundancy payments, job relocations and corruption. The Liaoyang mass protest of 2002-2003, which involved up to 10,000 workers, is perhaps the most notable. On the other hand, the early rampant growth of private enterprise signified the muscular dominance of capital over labour, with large-scale migration of rural residents to China’s cities for work. A critical shift in demographics however has conditioned the nature of these workers’ protests. The Western media has notably referred to China’s ‘demographic timebomb’, as The Guardian reported this year:

Life expectancy has soared in China, while fertility has plummeted due to strict birth control policies. In 2009 there were 167 million over-60s, about an eighth of the population. By 2050 there will be 480 million, while the number of young people will have fallen. […] China's economic miracle has been fuelled by its "demographic dividend": an unusually high proportion of working age citizens. That population bulge is becoming a problem as it ages. In 2000 there were six workers for every over-60. By 2030, there will be barely two.

Labour shortages, first apparent in 2004, then easing during the 2008-2009 capitalist crisis, were, by the end of the decade, evident across China. Since 2004, not only have the number of workers’ protests increased but so too have their demands evolved - from reactive, for example, against violations of labour rights, to proactive, such as demands for better wages and working conditions.

In terms of the distribution of workers’ struggle across the different sectors of China’s economy, while, in the early 2000s, the concentration was in the manufacturing sector (at a time when growth was fuelled by export-led manufacturing delivered by low cost labour), also, during the decade, significant protests took place in the education and transport sectors. Take the case of community teachers, who had played a crucial role since the 1960s in China’s localised schooling but were, in their millions, laid off in the early millennium. Throughout the decade, community teachers have petitioned government and protested. Moreover, regular teachers, particularly in the poorer provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi, Chongqing, Hubai and Hunan, have struck for pay parity with civil servants.

CLB observe a range of tactics used by the labour movement, from strikes (which are still the tactic of choice) to other creative actions. One interesting example is from June 2010, as it reports:

Workers at Jalon Electronics in Xiamen staged a mass “sleep-in” to protest against new work quotas introduced after a 1 June pay increase. Workers said pay for an eight-hour shift had gone up from 30 yuan to 38 yuan but that the work quota had gone up from an already difficult 7,700 units of conductive adhesive to an impossible 9,000 units. The workload was so exhausting that workers said they had no option but to sleep at their stations.

In the context of an intensifying and politically more militarised workers’ movement, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has attempted to marry a so-called new Confucianism with capitalism. The result? The promotion of a ‘harmonious society’; this, in reality, has entailed only piecemeal reforms, such as lacklustre reform of the Hukou (household registration system), which fail in seriously addressing the exclusion of rural migrants and the exploitation of workers. That said, this does point to a serious anxiety of the CCP, as CLB notes: central government spending on the maintenance of stability reached 514 billion yuan in 2009, roughly equivalent to or even in excess of the country’s annual expenditure on the military.

Nonetheless, workers’ protests have continued to excavate, many centred on “anger at the rapidly increasing gaps between the rich and the poor and the powerful and the weak, processes seen as directly linked to government corruption and cronyism.” Furthermore, the blackout in China’s official media on workers’ strikes and demonstrations is no longer possible, because of the rapid spread of the country’s social media, which includes, it is estimated, over 500 million netizens.

Whilst worker protests in the early 2000s predominantly involved laid-off workers from SOEs and rural migrants employed in the private sector, by the end of the decade a new group, or a ‘new generation’, emerged. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s have altered the nature of the migrant worker to one younger, better educated, more connected, and with higher expectations and more willingness to take on proactive demands. This, along with the ‘demographic timebomb’, CLB concludes, means that the workers’ movement in China (although still transitory and fragmented) is politically advancing. In a country hosting one in five of the world’s population, a cause for hope and solidarity then.