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The Chinese working class: fiction and reality

June 24, 2002

Two new books in English about Chinese workers make important contributions to the growing body of information on the Chinese working class, past and present. Tim Pringle points to some lessons for effective strategies to support China’s labor movement that arise from his reading of these books.

China’s Workers Under Assault

The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy

By Anita Chan, published by M. E. Sharpe, June 2001, 249 pages

Chinese Workers

A New History

By Jackie Sheehan, Routledge, December 1998, 240 pages

Myth and misinformation about modern China must surely count as the most consistent obstacles to those who want to understand the forces at play in the country. Examples from the past and present abound: “China is a totalitarian monolith where any form of dissent is ruthlessly crushed” or “China is a paradise where all citizens are equal and conflict between classes has been eradicated.” Some of the myths incorporate racist or discriminatory stereotypes: “The Chinese people have no concept of privacy” or “Chinese people are of a low ‘quality’.” However, such misinformation is not simply the result of political posturing left over from the Cold War era. Those with political power and influence within China itself have created or contributed enormously to the mystification. Some readers will recognize that the origins of at least two of the aforementioned myths emanate from within modern China itself.

Perhaps nowhere is the confusion more rife than in the discourse concerning the relationship between the Chinese State and the working class. Highly conscious of its legitimacy as the self-appointed vanguard of a “worker’s state,” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tops the list of myth makers. For example, in 1982, the new Constitution removed the right to strike on the grounds that such a right was the product of “extreme leftism.” Workers, according to Zhang Youyu, a veteran legal scholar who played a key role in the revival of the position of law in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had no need to strike as “Chinese enterprises belonged to the people.” Another addition to the catalogue of myths: exploitation no longer exists in the workers’ paradise. It is not difficult to imagine the degree of repression required to graft such an erroneous conclusion on to a very different reality. But China’s rulers, past and present, are not alone. There are those who, well-intentioned or otherwise, have reduced and simplified China into one vast sweatshop, a nation filled with ignorance where workers lack even the most basic knowledge of their rights and as such are reduced to the status of passive objects of efforts to bring improvements to their lives. For example, in the context of China — and many other countries without strong labor movements — a corporate code of conduct is essentially an agreement arrived at without any participation from workers themselves.

Of course, there is a huge amount of published material available that avoids pandering to accepted convention. Each new addition to this bank of reliable and often controversial information is to be welcomed and this article looks at two very different books in English on the subject of the Chinese working class. Chinese Workers — A New History by Jackie Sheehan and China’s Workers Under Assault — The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy by Anita Chan bring refreshing themes and ideas into the current arguments that surround the largest working class in the world. Chan’s book uses 10 years of fascinating — and often horrifying — mainland newspaper reports as a basis for her conclusion that we in the labor movement need to adopt a less politically motivated approach in our attempts to extend solidarity and support to Chinese workers. Sheehan’s history, on the other hand, employs meticulous research to point out that post-liberation Chinese workers have a tradition of often politically oriented militancy that many of those who yearn to “educate” them on their rights would do well to note. Her sources are Chinese radio broadcasts, newspapers and magazines as well as a vast bibliography of literature by Western, Chinese and Russian academics and writers. Conveniently for one of the themes developed in this article, Sheehan quotes Chan when referring to the CCP’s “down-playing and even obliterating any collective memory of worker-party conflicts” in order to create the post-liberation myth of the happy, loyal, but most of all docile, Chinese worker. Consequently, too many of us fell into the trap of heralding the dramatic emergence of the Workers’ Autonomous Federations (WAFs) during the 1989 Democracy Movement as the first independent workers’ organizations formed in China since 1949.

The following article is not meant as a critical review of Sheehan’s and Chan’s books and will also avoid reprinting large chunks from the books in an effort to highlight their contents. Instead, I will attempt to discuss, through examples drawn directly from both books — and occasionally related sources — some of the misconceptions the books directly and indirectly dispel.

The scope of public debate

Freedom of expression and the related issue of media freedom are issues intimately connected to worker rights and organizing, a fact that is reflected in the progress and history of the international labor movement. Despite constitutional and legal guarantees for various basic rights, vast numbers of Chinese workers have been and still are jailed for expressing views not deemed appropriate in a state where workers have been appointed “masters of the enterprise.”

The media in China frequently — and deservedly — come under attack as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for the CCP. Indeed there are times when the mind-numbing propaganda that they all too often churn out can lead readers into a kind of passive despondency. Yet the mere fact that Hong Kong activists promoting labor rights in China, as well as academics researching labor-related topics, spend so much time pouring over mainland newspapers, suggests that the reality of the nature of public debate in general and the media in particular, is more complex. At certain times over the past 50 years, the official media in China has been an arena of debate and discussion, albeit within parameters circumscribed by the political climate of the time.

For example, the nature of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and its domination by the CCP have long been a vital issue for all concerned with labor rights in China. It may therefore come as a surprise to some that the ACFTU’s newspaper, Workers’ Daily, which has been guilty of printing some of the most spectacular nonsense ever written about Chinese workers, reported that many members complained that Chinese unions had “lost their guts” following the Seventh ACFTU Congress way back in 1953, as Sheehan records. The Congress’s conclusions reduced trade unions to the role of passive purveyors of government policies — which, as far as urban workers were concerned, were mostly instructions to work harder in order to achieve the targets of the First Five Year Plan. While it cannot be argued that freedom of expression or anything like it existed in China in the early 1950s, the situation was not one where a united and totalitarian Communist Party simply barked out orders. The Seventh Congress was preceded by a fierce debate over the role of trade unions in the New China. Crucially important is that this debate was fueled by industrial unrest often rooted in disappointment at the slow rate of improvements in working conditions. Veteran CCP leader Li Lisan foresaw that unless the unions played a more active role, workers would quickly become frustrated with them and consequently argued for more autonomy for the ACFTU. Li was removed from office and wrote a self-criticism in which he confessed to promoting economism (unionism that focuses merely on such matters as wage demands and improvements in living conditions), thus deviating from the Party line by not encouraging the ACFTU to rally workers behind the party leadership, and advocating an autonomous union federation.

Sure enough, the mid-1950s saw an outbreak of industrial strife as some workers objected to the pace of work dictated by the targets in the First Five Year Plan. As the plan entered its third year, the People’s Daily voiced its irritation at continuing working class resistance, fuming that “the phenomenon of idle strikes, insubordination and violations of labor discipline are still prevalent among staff and workers in various enterprises.” During the unrest, workers organized independent enterprise - based pingnan hui or redressing grievance societies — 30 odd years before the campus-based Democracy Salons of the late 1980s.

The CCP’s political campaigns have often been described as having a pseudo-religious dimension, a key element in the Party’s arsenal for brainwashing the populace. But this does not fit the reality. Most political campaigns in China have been reactive, even defensive, and Sheehan’s work makes it very clear that concern over worker militancy has often influenced CCP decisions to launch this or that campaign.

The 1957 Hundred Flowers Campaign, which Sheehan links to the labor unrest of 1955-56 and the renewal of public debate over union autonomy, ended in a dramatic purge of independent-minded officials in the ACFTU. Predictably, while officials were purged, significant numbers of workers who had spoken out against CCP domination of the unions found themselves in labor camps.

Alas, the debate over the ACFTU has hardly moved on, even though the political-economic environment and available technology now is radically different. The 1990s have witnessed an apparently irreversible loosening of restrictions on the written word in China, although it should be stressed that the space for avowedly dissident expression remains suffocatingly narrow. If anything, the straitjacket has been tightened, as dissident journals and Web sites continue to be blocked and their editors imprisoned. Yet there has been a dramatic rise in outspoken investigative reporting relating to labor rights, and in fact this material forms the backbone of Chan’s book. Consider this extract from a piece of investigative journalism concerning labor unrest at a branch of the Bank of China. It was published in China Youth News, Southern Weekend and Jilin Daily, important and widely read newspapers. The reporter is describing the reaction of the local ACFTU to the bank clerks’ grievances:
Only after we arrived at the county People’s Bank did we discover that the union chair was a nonsense position filled by a deputy manager from the bank. The chair (representing the interests of labor) and the bank manager (representing the interests of capital) had been fused into one. This was truly a trade union with Chinese characteristics…This type of trade union was simply an insult to the term “trade union.”

These could easily be the words of exiled trade unionist Han Dongfang, one of the founders of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF), who is currently promoting independent trade unionism in China from Hong Kong. Prior to exile, Han was tortured and spent nearly two years in prison for his activities — and he calls himself one of the “lucky” ones. But two years after Han’s banishment to Hong Kong in 1993, we find mainland newspapers denouncing a branch of the ACFTU in language comparable to Han’s current Radio Free Asia broadcasts into China. Moreover, the failure of the ACFTU to avert the current widespread increase in violations of labor rights and resulting unrest has led to similar criticisms of the bureaucracy in no less a place than the People’s Daily, the principal newspaper of the CCP. The following extract is from an editorial that appeared in August 2001, after the revelation that “indentured labor” — a subject that is a key focus of Chan’s book—was being used in Shanghai:

In some places, especially among foreign-owned and private enterprises, the trade union exists in name only, which is worse than having no union at all. There are even enterprises where leading trade union positions are grasped by the boss’s relatives or trusted friends. How can this type of “trade union” speak for workers? If there was a trade union in the Japanese factory in Shanghai, it was a union in name only and of absolutely no use.

For trade unions outside China wishing to contribute to the building of a democratic labor movement inside China, these signs of apparent progress, accompanied by the revival of a reformist wing in the ACFTU are important. After army tanks bulldozed the BWAF tents on Tiananmen Square during the violent suppression of the 1989 Democracy Movement, the majority of independent trade unions, along with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions suspended all contact with the ACFTU. Short memories combined with a good deal of what the CCP refers to as “united front work” has now weakened the boycott: the ACFTU hosted well over 200 foreign trade union delegations in 2000. But the questions remain. Should genuine, representative trade unions engage with the ACFTU to encourage the reformists? Given the structure of the ACFTU, will delegations even meet these reformists? How can such trips avoid damaging the cause of independent trade unionists? Moreover, at the risk of stating the obvious, the issue of engagement by trade unions is far more complex than government to government engagement and cannot be reduced to the spurious Clintonite argument that all engagement — including trade — will gradually bring democracy. Independent trade unions are first and foremost collective, representative organizations of dues - paying members. As such they carry far more democratic weight than governments elected by a cross on a piece of paper every five years or so. It is surely incumbent on trade unions that decide to take the engagement road to thoroughly prepare for the complex situation they will meet in China and avoid the traps of political tourism, which the ACFTU leadership is so adept at promoting.

That there has been some limited, qualified progress on labor issues is a fact. But before national trade unions engaging with the ACFTU jump on the aforementioned examples to vindicate their strategy, a crucial point should be remembered. In 1989, the BWAF and similar organizations in 16 Chinese cities, exasperated with the official union’s historic failure to represent their interests, were offering an alternative to the ACFTU. Their alternative included publications, activities and leaflets that argued for the right to organize independent and democratic trade unions. As with every single like-minded attempt since, violent repression has been the State’s answer, a response that has gone entirely unquestioned by the ACFTU. However, what both books make clear, is that there has been, and is, public debate on the role of the ACFTU and the related question of defending workers’ interests. More often than not, this debate is forced onto the agenda by worker militancy, rather than international engagement — as is the case with the recent signs of progress. I believe the international labor movement needs to be more aware of these historical and present-day debates, as they have implications for the task of promoting workers’ rights in China.

The received wisdom about the Cultural Revolution and the 1970s is likewise often unhelpful in revealing the effects on workers of these vital years, which constitute a large part of Sheehan’s history of Chinese workers, as well as previous research by Chan.

There is another, equally important side to the Cultural Revolution other than that of the chaos, terror and descent into virtual civil war in certain places. Between 1966 and 1969, the year quasi-military rule was imposed, a proliferation of official and unofficial newspapers, big-character posters, journals and pamphlets accompanied an unprecedented outburst of political organizing and activity. The Chinese authorities are still living with the consequences. While it is certainly true that the widespread labor unrest which marked the dramatic entry of the working class into the Cultural Revolution was conducted within what Sheehan describes as the “linguistic constraints of high Maoism” (although some rebel worker organizations attacked the high priest himself), the experience of organizing, writing and speech-making that many young workers acquired during the period was invaluable. In fact it was put to good use in worker-Party conflicts throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, those who have spoken out against the often - impoverishing impact that Deng’s economic reforms have had on the Chinese working class are even now accused of promoting Cultural Revolution-style egalitarianism and class conflict. While many — but by no means all — present-day labor organizers in China would firmly reject the Maoist/Cultural Revolution tag, pamphlets produced by the WAFs during 1989 frequently contained notions of class-consciousness and what sociologist Andrew Walder calls “unabashed trade union mentality” in his review of the role of workers in the 1989 Democracy Movement. Sheehan points out that this “us and them” approach can be “traced back through Democracy Wall, April Fifth, the Li Yizhe poster, and the Cultural Revolution, all the way back to the Hundred Flowers period when it was first suggested that officials might constitute a ‘privileged class standing above the people’.”

The emergence of WAFs in the 1989 Democracy Movement was indeed exciting. While one of the sparks may well have been Han Dongfang’s decision to get off the commuter bus he was traveling on to see what the students were up to in the Square (actually it was Han’s wife, Chen Jingyun, who made that historic decision!), the WAFs had important precedents. The Democracy Wall Movement of the late 1970s was not a working class movement in the way its immediate predecessor the 1976 April Fifth Movement was. However, the array of opinions and discussions during the Democracy Wall era influenced the official media even though the dissidents went far beyond the parameters set for them by Deng Xiaoping and the Party reformers. As the CCP tried to address working class grievances by stressing the democratic role of workers congresses in the factories and by resurrecting the ACFTU — all but banned during the Cultural Revolution — workers who took part in the Democracy Wall responded with articles and publications addressing social issues such as housing, the standard of living, wages and inflation. As has been the case with every officially sanctioned expansion of public debate, repression followed. Notably, urban workers were a major target of the mass campaign against the “two illegals,” namely publications and organizations, that was launched to suppress the Democracy Wall Movement.

The myth of worker passivity

“The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.” Ironic as it may be to quote a fundamental tenet of Marxism in a critical discussion of the condition of workers in a “socialist” state, the idea is nevertheless axiomatic to an underlying theme of both books—the question of appropriate strategy for the struggle for workers’ rights in China. But first the mythical portraits of two groups of workers, migrants and workers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs), need to be addressed.

The stereotype of rural-to-urban migrant workers (previously known as temporary or contract workers) is that they are “low quality little people from the sticks incapable of standing up for themselves.” But in fact, almost every case of labor rights violations in China’s private, foreign-invested and township and village enterprises has only come to light because migrant workers took some kind of collective and organized action to fight against it.

This action ranges from a hurried phone-call to a journalist or lawyer, a march to the local labor bureau and, increasingly common, a strike. All such actions require courage and determination and a basic awareness of one’s rights—or at least of what’s right. Indeed it is astonishing that so many migrant workers, often working in the factory system for the first time and facing a temporary residence system (hukou) that Chan compares to the notorious pass laws of South Africa’s apartheid era, have taken action at all.

The sheer level of exploitation and rights abuses that have resulted from the re-entry of private and foreign capital into Chinese industry almost beggars belief. Chan’s description of Chinese workers being “under assault” is no exaggeration. The newspaper reports she uses abound with cases of illegal retention of ID cards, child labor, the payment of deposits to obtain jobs, wages unpaid for months on end, kangaroo courts set up to try strike leaders, dangerous working conditions and worse. Her own field research, carried out among 54 footwear factories, found that nearly 30 percent of them employed corporal punishment. And we are not talking about a slap from a bullying foreman, bad as that would be, but systematized, public corporal punishment that some managers and investors see as absolutely necessary to production in China.

Yet to this writer at least, it is the resistance to this exploitation that is inspiring and gives hope, rather then the frequent platitudes heard from so many quarters about

passivity and low levels of education. Chan uses a report on the “Baitang Incident” which took place in a textile factory on the outskirts of Guangzhou. Appalling working and living conditions as well as unpaid wages led the Sichuanese migrant workers to take action. They organized an overtime ban, contacted the press and labor authorities, elected their own representatives and eventually went on strike. Management response came in the form of gun-toting thugs employed as security guards and blatant lying to the authorities. Shots were even fired at the workers’ representatives. While the workers’ courage and initiative are obviously worthy of note, so is the comment from the Zhuhai Labor News that reported the incident: “Cruel exploitation must of necessity lead to worker resistance. Don’t the strikes and appeals to higher authorities one after the other in recent years actually demonstrate a crisis in the conflict between labor and capital?” The implications of such an official editorial in a “socialist” country where the legal status of strikes is blurred to say the least — though I believe this situation will change for the better in the near future — and freedom of assembly is denied, are indeed profound.

One caricature of workers in China’s nationalized industries is of “passive supporters of the regime jealously guarding their status as a labor aristocracy.” There is no denying that, until the economic reforms began, SOE workers enjoyed a degree of job security and relatively good welfare arrangements in return for low wages, which undoubtedly contributed to the evolution of the “labor aristocracy” myth. The smashing of the “iron rice bowl,” as the welfare system in SOEs was called, has been encouraged and applauded by international financial institutions advising China, as well as by CCP reformers and even dissidents.

While space prohibits an examination of the “privileges” SOE workers enjoyed, it is just not true that they have remained aloof from labor protests and staunchly defended the Party, as the CCP has claimed. The recent wave of protest and unrest against the SOE restructuring that has swept China since the 15th Party Congress in 1997, is the sixth in a series of major eruptions of working class protest and conflict with the authorities, according to Sheehan. These high points were the post-liberation period in 1949-52, the Hundred Flowers movement in 1956-57, the early period of the Cultural Revolution 1966-69, the April Fifth Movement in 1976, the Democracy Wall movement 1979-1981 and the Democracy Movement of 1989.

In all of these periods of intense industrial unrest, SOE workers have taken action against bureaucratic rule in the enterprises, isolation of managers from workers, coercive management methods, arrogance and high-handedness and a lack of democracy in both the ACFTU and the enterprise itself. Other complaints have included corruption, poor housing, wage freezes and dangerous working conditions. Sheehan cites numerous incidents of SOE workers organizing strikes and even communicating their actions to workers in the next city by writing slogans on trains. For example, during the spring of 1957, Guangzhou’s docks were paralyzed by a mass stay-away sparked by a new shift system that drove down piece rates on the docks. At the height of the protest more than half the workforce was on strike. In a ploy directly comparable to the tactics of Hong Kong’s highly organized Cathay Pacific pilots in their recent dispute over management witch-hunts against union members, many dockers tried to go on sick leave, only to find local trade union cadres blocking the doors to the clinic. Workers arriving late for work were detained by management personnel and had to write self-criticisms. In 1975, 30,000 troops were sent to Hangzhou to put down citywide coordinated strikes and protests. These are actions surely more reminiscent of a working class aware of its collective strength and ability to organize, than a molly-coddled “labor aristocracy” rendered befuddled and passive by CCP propaganda and welfare handouts.

What next?

One retort to the all-too-brief discussion above might be “so what?” Whether Chinese workers have a history of militancy and organizing that has periodically widened the parameters of public debate, occasionally won improvements in working conditions and even induced changes in government policies, is ultimately irrelevant, the argument goes. The regime still locks up workers’ leaders and the ACFTU remains under the thumb of the CCP while the overall working conditions and standard of living of the working class continue to come under attack.

I would argue that this suppressed history of struggle is central and should influence our efforts to help defend labor rights in China. In her conclusion, Chan eloquently argues that while the five core labor rights recently reaffirmed in the ILO’s 1998 Declaration of Fundamental Principles at Work are important, they should not exclude efforts to champion and enforce other rights. Chan argues that so-called “non-core labor rights,” which address issues such as forced labor, work and rest time, health and safety and injury compensation, are just as important to the lives of Chinese workers, as more political “core” rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining. Chan asks the question, “Is the strategy of prioritizing the two main labor rights [association and collective bargaining] necessarily the most appropriate one for working people in the developing world?”

The history of China’s labor movement, and trade union history in general, indicates that this division is a false one. The case of Britain’s Tolpuddle Martyrs was one heroic incident in British workers’ wider struggle for trade union recognition, spearheaded by the Chartist Movement. Looking back at documents of the time, quoted extensively in a book commemorating the Martyrs published by the UK’s Trade Unions Congress, we read the assessment of a 19th century commentator that “the workers’ efforts to modify this [employment] system so that it was less prison-like were not misdirected.” Modification of the employment system is exactly what Chan wants us to prioritize. Yet the example illustrates that the struggle for dignified work and the struggle for free association are intimately and indivisibly linked.

Back in China, sincere efforts have been made to improve the dignity of work by some international unions and secretariats, while putting the issue of independent trade unionism on the back burner. For example, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) ran a series of workshops on mine safety during the late 1990s, in conjunction with the ACFTU affiliates in the mining industry. The ICEM is a highly respected organization with a wealth of experience, resources and materials on mine safety that it no doubt made available during the workshops. Yet given the abysmal safety record of China’s mines, reflected in the fact that reports of deaths in mining accidents have been appearing almost daily in recent months, it could be argued that this project was never going to achieve its objectives while the miners are prevented from exercising their right to freedom of association. The reasons for China’s mining industry having the worst safety record in the world are many and complex: privatization, lack of investment in safety machinery, a proliferation of small, illegal mines and corruption to name but a few. But the point made in a press release issued by China Labor Bulletin — of which Han Dongfang is chief coordinator — is also relevant. Following a spate of major accidents in China’s mines this summer, Han argued:
One underlying cause behind the terrible statistics has gone almost unreported — the Chinese government’s complete ban on independent trade unions. Of course, independent trade unions are not a magic potion with the capacity to transform the industry. Yet the international history of the trade union movement demonstrates that independent, democratically organized trade unions and workers’ organizations can have a dramatic impact on health and safety at work. And nowhere is this more the case than in intrinsically dangerous jobs such as mining.

Parallel means

At the beginning of this discussion, a critical reference was made to the potential for codes of conduct in factories in China’s export-processing zones to improve working conditions. Codes have received stern criticism from a Hong Kong-based umbrella organization, Labor Rights in China (LARIC), one of the aims of which is “to promote the right of workers to organize autonomous and democratic trade unions in China.” An article published by LARIC concluded:
Workers who have been subjected to abusive and repressive labor regimes in countries such as Indonesia and China will not benefit from the current codes of conduct campaigns initiated in the West unless they become a key component in the process. Independent monitoring will not only fail to deliver the implementation of these codes, but will actually further exclude local worker representation from the project of improving labor standards around the world. Facilitating genuine and democratic union representation should form the foremost task of any initiative that aims to improve labor rights. This is not an impossible project but immediately feasible if only the TNCs and local manufacturers are willing to allow it to happen.

The above was written in early 2000 and it appears the argument is moving on. Following pressure from LARIC and other groups, a small number of transnational companies (TNCs) have offered to cooperate in the setting up of at least partially representative worker/management committees in their suppliers’ factories. In countries where freedom of association is denied, such committees are often referred to as “parallel means.” The most concrete manifestation of this trend is an initiative of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, called the Asia Health and Safety Training Project. According to the project’s “Memorandum of Understanding: China Capacity Building Project Occupational Health and Safety,” the year-long scheme will involve “all participants (worker, supervisor/manager, labor practices staff of the international brands and NGO staff)” in a health and safety committee in the Yue Yuen II plant in Dongguan.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and three major Hong Kong labor NGOs have signed the memorandum and are taking part in this project, which seems to be just what Chan is proposing in her argument for a focus on non-core labor rights. As the project is still ongoing, it is too early to assess the outcome. While wishing the project every success in its stated aim of enabling “in-plant workers to meaningfully participate in improving health and safety on the job,” I have some doubts as to whether the management-worker partnership approach will have the necessary political clout to achieve such aims. Apart from the usual exhausting production schedules, workers participating in such projects also have to deal with factory rules that undermine any meaningful contribution, as the following excerpt from a “Hygiene Charter” from a factory contracted by Disney and Mattel makes more than clear:

2. Keep the toilets clean. It is imperative you keep the toilets clean, cherish the facilities, obey management and adhere to regulations. If you damage the facilities, you will be required to compensate according to the cost. If you intentionally damage them, then severe punishment will result. If you violate any of the following items whatsoever [see 1-4] you will be fined 5-50 yuan. In addition you will be required to clean the toilets for a day [the time for which will be arranged by the general services section]. Disgusting violations will be punished by expulsion from the factory.

Such rules hardly show management giving priority to a spirit of “partnership.” Perhaps the TNCs taking part in the health and safety project (Adidas-Saloman, Pegasus, Nike) deal with less imperious suppliers. Unfortunately the secrecy (and downright fear) that surrounds the sub-contracting system in South China makes it impossible to say.

Different tactics required?

Many dissidents will tell you that China is different from, and worse than, anywhere else. For example, in an Radio Free Asia interview discussing workers rights with Han Dongfang, the now imprisoned An Jun argued that China is “the most politically backward country in the world, [by political standards] a ‘Sixth World’ country.” Safe in my office in Hong Kong, it is easy for me to disagree with An, whose courageous crusade against corruption has landed him in jail. However, while acknowledging that every struggle for human and labor rights takes place in a specific environment, I would argue that the notion that China is somehow “different” does not contribute to the building of an independent labor movement.

For example, the current economic reform and its impacts on workers’ rights and interests have thrown up political questions that some have described as unprecedented. They are not. Moreover, our efforts to support workers in China are taking place against the international backdrop of globalization and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). This environment has persuaded the CCP to adopt a policy of privatization — in all its forms — that has led to millions of workers being laid off, over seven million in the first half of 2001 alone. Yet if you talk to Chinese workers, you will find an extraordinary assortment of views on the above issues, all of which have a history.

Some say they are not against the reforms in general, or even privatization in particular, but instead see these policies as an opportunity to rid themselves of a corrupt and obsolete management system dominated by self-seeking, inept CCP cadres and their relatives. Going back to the nationalization of private industry in the early 1950s, the roots of this bitterness become apparent. Nationalization then actually contributed to dissatisfaction, or more accurately, disappointment, among the newly appointed “masters of the enterprise.” As Sheehan points out, “Whatever the actual extent of management democratization in private enterprises during these years, it is clear that there was a feeling among workers themselves that powers and influence in the enterprise which they once enjoyed had been lost when their enterprises were nationalized.”

And we can find a powerful echo today, as private ownership comes back with a vengeance. In a recent interview in the UK’s Socialist Worker newspaper, Han Dongfang explained, “With the old state contract workers got benefits like medical insurance, education, housing and pensions. This was called the iron rice bowl.” But when asked about his attitude towards the anti-globalization movement, Han was refreshingly frank:
To tell the truth I am not sure what to think. We had a society where the state ran everything and that was bad. Now people are protesting against privatization and I am confused what the alternative is. Many workers in China I speak to wish for the WTO. They say we are living in hell and we are hanging on. We may exchange this hell for another but at least it’s change. One worker from Beijing said to me, “Mr Han, how far have you gone to approach the WTO?” He said under the WTO rules lawyers from the US and Britain can set up law firms to defend our labor rights. I said, what if you are working in McDonald’s and you have a dispute? You go to the law firm and McDonald’s pay one million and you pay nothing. Who do you think they will take? I told the worker it is a dream. You have to look to your own activity and you have to be strong.

China in 2001 is not Poland in 1981. But the underlying essence of these words could have been spoken by Solidarity delegates gathered in Gdansk City for the trade union’s first national program. They argued over issues such as the market, self-management (including industrial democracy) and the future of Poland. Yet the question remains: why has no Chinese Solidarity emerged?

I hope that if nothing else, the above has made it clear that there have been a number of distinct periods when Chinese workers have been very, very close to contracting what leaders in Zhongnanhai refer to as the “Polish Disease,” an infection they are very concerned to avert. And not just the Polish strain. In China’s 1957 April-May strike wave, striking workers chanted: “If you don’t learn from Hungary, you won’t get anything,” referring to the heroic attempts of Hungarian workers to throw off Soviet oppression the year before. These commonalities testify to the fact China is not so different and that there are lessons to be learned in our efforts to build a labor movement, not only from Chinese labor history, but also from great labor struggles against dictatorial regimes elsewhere. The labor movements in South Africa against apartheid, Chile and Spain against fascist governments, Poland and Hungary against Stalinism, and perhaps even the role of Indian workers in the struggle against British imperialism, contain valuable lessons. All these struggles were both political and economic challenges. As Sheehan makes clear, labor unrest in post-liberation China has consistently been politically as well as economically motivated.

International solidarity

In November 2000, Hong Kong labor organizations held an international conference to discuss the rising tide of labor unrest in China and how to support it. Bluntly speaking, it was a disappointment that ended with no agreed strategy. Of course, all of us concerned about building representative trade unions in China will continue to urge international union organizations and labor NGOs to issue protest letters and press releases denouncing the detention of individual labor activists. We will continue to organize and support campaigns for the release of people like Xu Jian, Cao Maobing (a partial success: Cao has been released from his detention in a psychiatric hospital) and many others. And so we should.

But I believe we also need to move beyond rhetoric in our support for the strikes and protests currently sweeping China. Sure enough, issues such as WTO entry (and the related argument over the social clause), “engagement” with the ACFTU, non-core labor rights, codes of conduct and the arbitrary detention of labor activists must remain central to our efforts. But we also need to increase our efforts to offer solidarity and support to the very real protests and even strikes workers are organizing on a daily basis. Obviously, political conditions block many avenues that might otherwise be open to us, but at the very least we can publicize the struggles and condemn arrests when they take place. In July this year, the Hong Kong press reported a large-scale strike and demonstration in Jilin Province by office workers and miners angry at corruption and wage arrears. One report by a China-based journalist claimed the action had been going on for at least four weeks! Yet despite all the hullabaloo about Internet technology facilitating international solidarity, here was what appeared to be an important example of worker action and none of us followed it up. No press releases, no letters to the mine company or local government and no one appears to know what happened. My point is that struggles such as these should be a central focus of efforts to help.

Read the books!

This article has barely scratched the surface of the issues, themes and implications of these two books. In picking out just two basic themes, much of the material covered in Chan’s book has not been discussed at all: indentured labor, the relation of labor rights to human rights, and the more recent activities of independent labor organizers. Moreover, with the exception of the previous section, I have largely refrained from offering any critical comments, as the sheer volume of information in the publications dictate that such a task would require two separate articles, one for each book. For the moment, I would urge all those interested in labor issues — workers, anti-globalization protesters, trade union officials, NGO staffers and human rights advocates—to read these very informative and useful books and join the debates and struggles for labor rights in China, and everywhere else.

Main English-language References

  • Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC), Smashing the Iron Rice Pot, 1988

  • AMRC, We in the Zone, 1998

  • Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed — Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland, 1980-1981, Bookmarks, 1986

  • China Labour Bulletin Web site:

  • Nigel Harris, The Mandate of Heaven—Marx and Mao in Modern China, Quartet Books, 1978

  • Lu Ping, ed., A Moment of Truth, AMRC, 1990

  • Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network:

  • Mok Chiu Yu and J. Frank Harrison, ed.s, Voices of Tiananmen Square, Black Rose Books, 1990

  • Trades Union Congress, The Martyrs of Tolpuddle, 1934

Tim Pringle is a labor researcher based in Hong Kong.

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