June-July 2016 - Volume 37, No. 3
If one believes the propaganda peddled by U.S. politicians and the media, China’s workers are unfair competitors and job stealers. In reality, this vast working class is fighting like hell against the very same forces of world capital responsible for the fears and insecurity of their U.S. sisters and brothers.
Exploited and mad as hell. Thirty years into market “reforms” that gradually restored capitalism, strikes are at an all-time high. Many of the targets make products for companies whose names are familiar in the Americas — Honda, Nike, Apple, Foxconn.
In 2015, China’s workers waged 2,774 strikes and labor protests. This doubled the 2014 number, which in turn was a marked increase from the total of 1,200 actions between 2011 and 2013. Strikes are illegal in China, which makes them especially significant. Today, the unrest continues apace.
The Pearl River Delta region is the heart of the strike wave. The province of Guangdong, known as “the world’s factory,” is China’s export center and economic engine. Construction and manufacturing are the predominant sectors and are host to more than 70 percent of the protests.
An estimated 274 million rural migrant workers are the backbone of China’s labor force. The figure includes not only people who have left rural homes to earn wages to send back to their families, but also city dwellers with family roots in the countryside.
Conditions for migrants are brutal; workdays of 10 or 12 hours are common. And migrants pay another price as well. In moving to places where there are factories and jobs, they leave behind a social benefit package that the government ties to their traditional family place of residence.
Known as hukou, the household registration system provides healthcare, pensions, insurance against injury on the job and more. But the benefits of hukou don’t follow the individual. This puts people leaving the countryside, or who come from rural families, in a precarious, super-exploited position, similar to that of undocumented workers in the U.S.
During China’s years of spectacular growth, strikes were often about wage raises. But stagnation in the global economy is affecting China; exports are down. When the Chinese economy slowed and the stock market crashed in 2015, factories shed workers or closed shop entirely. Now, disputes most often center on back pay — millions of workers are going unpaid — and on compensation for layoffs.
In the past, the ability of migrants to return to the land provided an important safety valve to calm the turbulence generated by China’s return to capitalism. But the continuing loss of rural areas to urbanization is curtailing this option, and the government is feeling increasing heat.
Rising up, cracking down. Recognizing the crisis, Communist Party (CP) government officials are crafting plans that would allow migrants to carry hukou with them to mid-sized cities. But schools and services there are vastly inferior to the services provided in China’s largest cities, especially along the eastern coast. Only the most elite workers are able to qualify for status in these wealthier locations.
To make matters worse, officials are planning to shed 1.8 million workers by downsizing state-owned enterprises in the coal and steel industries.
With the need for a fighting labor organization so clear, the bankruptcy of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is being thoroughly exposed.
Officially, the federation represents 280 million Chinese workers. In practice, it represents instead the same CP government that is subjecting the working class to market reforms and their attendant misery, pauperization, and uncertainty. ACFTU officials who negotiate for the workers are frequently chosen by the employers that workers are on strike against.
In a major breakthrough, during a vibrant walkout at Honda plants in 2010, workers raised the need for democratically elected union leaders.
Of necessity, most strikes are organized outside the federation’s official channels. The consequent lack of centralization makes it difficult for the working class to build on the power, organization, and lessons gained from each strike.
Facing severe government repression, labor leaders are forced underground and compelled to seek new forms of resistance and organization. Several were arrested this past winter on charges of “disturbing social order.” Nevertheless, the strikes continue — not only by factory workers but by teachers, bus drivers, and others as well. So do road blockades, factory occupations, and other forms of protest.
The need for solidarity. This spring, Chinese labor activists Mi Tu and Fan Gang toured the West Coast to publicize the fightback and build solidarity. Factory workers themselves, they contributed interviews with fellow workers to the book China on Strike. In Seattle on April 11, the two discussed the current situation and the challenges ahead.
The consciousness of workers is evolving, Mi Tu said. As their demands grow more complex, embracing issues like factory closures and social welfare guarantees, the difficulty in getting these demands met through one or two strikes is also growing. Workers are coming to understand that they need organizations of their own, she said.
Government opposition, however, makes the organizing of independent unions a decidedly uphill battle. So what can be done?
China does not exist in a vacuum. The harsh difficulties suffered by the people are products of the international economy, and the solution must be international as well. Chinese workers need the support of a militant international labor movement.
In the U.S., workers can take a step toward building such a movement by challenging the “America First” mentality prevailing among politicians and union officials. Far from benefiting U.S. workers, this perspective holds them back. Because whether big business operates under the Chinese flag or the U.S. Stars and Stripes, it profits most when the world’s labor forces see each other as enemies, not allies.
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