Thursday, June 19, 2014

Vietnamese protests were not all about nationalism

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The mass protests and riots that took place in Vietnam last month were reported in the mass media here as primarily nationalist riots over the disputed Paracel Islands and a Chinese oil rig placed in waters claimed by Vietnam.

The protests were initially organized by middle class elements, “largely urban academics, lawyers and writers attached to human rights groups” according to the Wall Street Journal. * Much of the sentiment among the middle classes is that the Vietnamese government is a little too close to China. But in situations like these, calling out the masses, there is always a danger the “masses” have some issues of their own. This is what the US trade union leaders fear most with regards to their own members.

As I commented in previous contributions, a combination of many factors, including major strikes at auto plants and other concerns in China have led to wage increases as high as 20%.  It appears Chinese workers with no independent unions are more successful wringing gains from the Stalinist bureaucracy than we are here in the US with independent unions led by pro capitalist union officials.

Chinese and foreign Manufacturers have responded to this movement of Chinese workers by looking to Vietnam for cheaper labor power.  Wages in Vietnam under another Stalinist dictatorship, are half those of China and, like flies around manure, manufacturers and their partners like Nike, Samsung and others are salivating at the opportunities for profit making. Vietnam now takes in more money relative to the economy’s size than any other Southeast Asian country barring Singapore.

What began as peaceful protests turned ugly as the anger in Vietnamese society at the exploitation they face not only by Chinese manufacturers but also by foreign bosses and their own government, broke through the surface.  Riots broke out in the cities as well as the provinces according to reports. As more and more workers swelled the ranks of protestors, mixed with nationalist slogans were calls for the release of political prisoners, those who have opposed the regime, and against land confiscation by the government, an issue that is the source of thousands of demonstrations and protests in China.

But the anger was also directed at bosses with calls for an end to worker exploitation.  I am sure it probably began as opposition to foreign firms, particularly Chinese as this nationalism was supported to a great extent by the urban middle classes it appears. But experience teaches us that once the anger finds an expression, albeit a confused and at times misdirected one, the inherent hatred and anger at the bosses rises to the surface as well, both domestic and foreign exploiters are targeted.  In the melee, class anger raises its head.

Like the Cambodian regime’s clampdown and murder of Cambodian workers that struck for higher pay, the Vietnamese government has shut down public dissent and has imprisoned a number of participants.  The press makes a big issue of looting as if this type of activity in times like these is simply about theft rather than workers getting back at the boss for years of exploitation and theft of labor time. As the protests gained strength factories were also set ablaze.  I assure you, the perpetrators are not arsonists.  The US bourgeois do not refer to the workers it sends to fight their corporate wars as murderers when they kill those that resist.  It all depends on our class viewpoint. One Vietnamese manufacturer had it right when he told the media that, ”Some people used the riots as an excuse to act out on grievances, such as workers who had been fired from factories.”  This individual had to hide in a bathroom for 7 hours apparently as workers “ransacked” his factory. Sometimes we get our own back. We can be assured that if western capital was blocked from profit opportunities in a country like Vietnam it would be championing the workers’ cause under these circumstances.

Eva Dou, writing in the Wall Street Journal seems to think that the “sudden, violent blowup---which took both government and protest organizers by surprise-----suggests deep resentments are still bottled up beneath the apparent calm.”  How do we respond to that?  Oh, yes---Duh!  There’s a lot of “apparent calm” under the iron heel whether it’s firmly planted on the necks of Vietnamese, former Soviet, black South African or US workers. There is a whole lot of “apparent calm” here in the US. 

The bureaucratic regime that runs the so-called Socialist Republic of Vietnam is concerned it won’t be able to keep its “Iron Heel” on the collective necks of its own working class forever. Manufacturing accounts for 40% of the Vietnamese economy centered around more than 280 industrial parks. These are hubs of working class activity, some of the most exploited working class in the world.

In situations like these, or whenever the working class lifts up its head and offers any resistance at all, it’s always the result of outside agitators.  Gang members and criminals have been suggested as the leaders of the Vietnamese attacks on workplaces.  “The workers have always been peaceful before, even when they held strikes” said one manufacturer whose plant was burnt down. That’s what oppressive governments are for, keeping workers’ peaceful and protests ineffectual

The regime does not want to lose its position as being able to provide such cheap labor power to global capital. It must offer global capital a stable environment which means keeping a lid on dissent and protest at such abuse. 

In the aftermath of the May events and the subsequent clampdown on workers’ rights and dissent, manufacturers are feeling a little more confident that their exploitative activity can continue unimpeded. The pipers that call the tune, the Wal-Mart’s. Nike’s Samsung, Foxconn and others have not yet abandoned ship as the profits are so lucrative. 

Asia is home to most of the worlds manufacturing workers and more than 50% of these workers are women.  We have seen massive protests and strikes in Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Vietnam and Bangladesh.  India is also a conflagration in the making.

All ruling classes fear us. In the most oppressive regimes, the lack of democracy and ability to protest is a response not to a regime’s strength but its weakness.  Nationalism, racism, sexism, religious and all sorts of social divisions are useful tools for the ruling classes as a means to divide us.  But they fear us for a reason---there is such a thing as class-consciousness. Despite all their divisive tactics, the hatred of the bosses and the exploitive nature of the labor process break through the surface at times. 

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote many years ago that the crisis of the working class is a crisis of leadership.  This is as true today as when it was written.  May’s protests in Vietnam are proof positive that the class issue will raise its head when the masses take to the streets. When middle class elements initiate this it is their class view that is prominent initially.  When the working class has no clear leadership that has a democratic socialist alternative to the madness of the market and a strategy and tactics aimed at uniting the class in order to accomplish that goal, this increases the possibility that the movement becomes fragmented, drawn out and at times outright reactionary.

But my own personal historical experience is that in times of heightened class struggle, the tendency for class unity and desire to overcome the superficial divisions imposed on us by capital is very strong.  These nations that have become the manufacturing centers of the world are not so far apart in distance or culture. Every worker knows in our gut that our unity opens the door to our emancipation and true freedom. The capitalist class knows it too.  In that sense they’re more united. That’s why national and international leadership is important.  Workers of the world unite is not a utopian idea; it’s a necessity if we are to survive.

One thing is certain in this writer’s mind. The working class will never cease to fight back against oppression and try to resolve the crisis that capitalism imposes on our lives and the planet.  Every freedom we have is a result of this. We must learn that from history. Our success is not guaranteed, the role of leadership is crucial with regards to that.

The consequence of failure in the modern era though is the end of life as we know it.

* Companies Learn the Risks of Doing Business in Vietnam WSJ 6-19-14

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