On 27 November, approximately 1,500 workers blocked the main trunk road leading out of the south China city of Dongguan. They work for Alco, a major Hong Kong based transnational company producing consumer electronics.
The workers are mostly internal migrants from the countryside, earning the minimum wage for Dongguan of £46 per month.
The young workers had downed tools after the company – listed as one of Asia’s “best” companies by bosses’ magazine Forbes – imposed a 75 percent increase in canteen prices.
Despite a recent softening of police attitudes towards strikers in the one-party state, the forces of law and order felt compelled to move in with dogs, batons and riot shields to get the workers off the main road.
However, alarmed by the workers’ confidence and the possibility of an escalation – and no doubt leaned on by edgy government officials – management caved in and revoked the increase in the cost of meals.
Thousands of miles away in Shandong province at around the same time, hundreds of oil workers from the Qilu Petro Chemical Corporation were striking for a wage increase.
Former employees of the company, whose working lives were cut short in the mass sackings that accompanied partial privatisation in 2001, joined the mass picket of the company headquarters.
The strikers’ pay claim is in the context of rising inflation and record company profits, due mainly to high global oil prices. The police watched but did not move against the strikers. Workers at the Qilu plant are mostly locals with a proud tradition of building “socialism” since the 1949 revolution, and they earn between £67 and £133 per month.
What China’s rulers fear most is the potential for unity between these two halves of China’s rapidly expanding working class – migrants from the countryside and established urban workers.
It would be foolish to indulge in predictions, but there is evidence to suggest that a convergence of interests is inching up the agenda as the barriers to unity fade under China’s appetite for continued growth and accumulation.
A major remaining constraint on unity is the draconian restrictions on residency. The hukou (household registration) system ties rural people to their place of birth and only allows them to reside in the cities while they are in work and have their papers in order.
Over the last decade, the government has been forced to relax these rules under pressure from capitalists needing a large reserve army of unemployed workers in order to keep wages down.
At the same time, both business and the state have found the household registration system to be an important instrument of control that allows them to force militant workers back to the countryside.
Throughout the 1990s and early years of this century, the bosses and newly autonomous state-owned enterprise directors had it all their way. Up to 45 million urban employees were laid off and up to 150 million rural migrants left the fields in search of work in the towns and cities.
As China embraced capitalist globalisation, state policies created an irresistible environment for investors and multinational companies.
This was especially true in the southern and eastern coastal provinces that have spearheaded the country’s transformation from an economy producing mainly for domestic markets to an economy producing for global markets. There is no legal protection of the right to strike, and no freedom of association.
All unions must affiliate to the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). This organisation was deeply involved in drafting a host of labour laws occupational safety laws. But its constitutional subservience to the Communist Party prevents it from seriously trying to ensure these laws are enforced.
The Party’s leadership over the ACFTU ensured that the latter did not resist privatisation and mass sackings in the state sector. The ACFTU has emphasised establishing unions in the private sector – often chaired by managers or their stooges – as opposed to organising workers on the shop or office floor.
This has rendered it incapable of challenging local alliances of predatory capitalists and officials with a vested interest in ensuring continued investment.
Workers themselves have conducted a spirited but dislocated resistance to the state sector lay offs. A watershed point was the widespread unrest in 2002 – notably in the strategically important oilfields – as state oil companies shed workers to compete against the foreign competition that resulted from World Trade Organisation membership.
Troops were put on standby in the north eastern town of Daqing as up to 80,000 workers rallied in public for over ten days demanding improved redundancy compensation.
Their actions were copied to a lesser degree in at least three other oilfields. But a combination of repression, persuasion, coercion, historical divisions and highly targeted payouts stopped state sector workers in different locations from uniting.
On the rare instances that they did, it produced a fierce reaction from the authorities, with arrests and imprisonment meted out to workers’ leaders.
On the other hand, the struggles of migrant workers in the export zones and boom towns have been handicapped by draconian bosses, authoritarian officials, internal divisions and a lack of experience in the factory system.
In recent years however, the conditions that have helped constrain the emergence of a labour movement have given away to a much more promising scenario.
In 2004, labour shortages began to emerge – a fitting testament to capitalism’s failure to provide genuine progress in a country with a national average unemployment rate of eight percent.
Skilled and experienced workers remained in short supply as the increasing importance of the Yangtze river delta and the government’s urbanisation policy began to attract workers away from the traditional target provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.
This has forced the bosses to improve conditions and local governments to raise minimum wage levels, just as NGOs working to improve working conditions are reporting a general increase in rights awareness among migrant workers.
The role of skilled workers and line supervisors has been crucial. They have used their experience and favourable market conditions to force concessions out of the bosses by organising strikes and protests.
Privatised former state enterprises are also seeing the gradual re-emergence of resistance from workers in work as opposed to defensive battles by workers already laid off.
Approximately 7,000 textile workers maintained a 24 hour picket line for six weeks – possibly the longest known strike in China’s post 1949 history – outside the Xianyang Huarun factory. They fought new inferior contracts, loss of seniority, against water cannon and riot police following a buy-out by the Hong Kong based mainland conglomerate China Resources.
Since economic reforms were introduced in the agricultural sector in 1978, China’s growth has been sustained and spectacular by any standards. After overtaking the US in 2003, the country has been the largest recipient of foreign direct investment in the world.
In 2005 China became the world’s third largest trading country and in 2006 gross domestic product reached $2.2 billion, with only the US, Japan and Germany ahead. But the “growth at all costs” policy is now meeting serious obstacles. The weiquan, or civil rights, movement in China stretches from farmers battling to preserve the land against violent developers to strikers seeking a share in the country’s growth.
The movement has forced the new leadership of Communist Party secretary Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao to change the regime’s rhetoric from “growth at all costs” to the construction of a “harmonious society” based on “scientific development”.
This shift has not stemmed the growing sense of resentment among workers and farmers as they compare their own continued impoverishment and harsh working lives against the conspicuous consumption of China’s nouveau riche.
China is entering a crucial stage of development as external and internal factors threaten to come together in 2008. As the Party prepares to put its “economic miracle” – basically the phased and cautious introduction of neoliberal policies – on show at the Beijing Olympic games, the US economy is faltering.
Earlier this month, the central banks of North America, Europe and Britain injected an unprecedented $100 billion into the financial system, in what analysts at BNP Paribas labelled “drastic action to stop credit tensions spilling over into broader markets and becoming the catalyst for a global economic crunch.”
Such a crunch would have a serious impact on China’s export-led growth and further frustrate the Chinese government’s efforts to promote employment and social harmony.
As one Beijing-based labour lawyer told us recently, “While there is continued growth, the government can probably keep the lid on protests. But if there is a recession, that will be very difficult to manage.”
Andre Gorz’s notorious “farewell” to the French working class on the eve of the great strikes of 1968 still serves as a warning against predictions on the directions of class struggle. And yet, the growing determination of China’s workers to limit their exploitation presents opponents of capitalist globalisation with a crucial challenge.
Inside China, outright repression has combined with a complex historical legacy to prevent the emergence of a unified working class movement.
These remain the main obstacles confronting the working class and the militants who might lead it. Outside China, and especially in countries such as Britain, workers have long won the right to organise.
Our task is to actively show solidarity with the struggles of our brothers and sisters in China. It is in all our interests to do so.