In the last twenty years, China’s economy has grown faster than any other country in the world—and it has even managed to grow through most of the current recession.
At the same time, though, China has also seen more strikes, protests and demonstrations than at any time since the 1920s.
One common theme that links many of these revolts is resentment at inequality and corruption.
Communist Party officials and managers have prospered much more than the mass of the population, and aren’t shy about flaunting their wealth.
That has happened because of a shift in economic power inside the state machine.
Local managers and officials now have real control over economic assets and budgets, and consequently the ability to grow rich.
But this also makes them targets. Workers and peasants can make practical demands on them—over taxes, wages, working hours—which the officials control. And because most protests win some, if not all, of their demands, workers and peasants learn that fighting pays.
The current round of resistance began in 1994 in the countryside, with protests against local officials’ greed and corruption.
Some of these involved up to 10,000 people. Protesters clashed with police and burned down offices.
These revolts were driven by official corruption, illegal taxes, and landgrabs for building by lower-level officials.
They won—the government instituted new law after new law to stop illegal taxes, and over the last ten years this type of peasant resistance has subsided.
But in their place have come larger, if fewer, mobilisations against polluting factories and land being grabbed for illegal construction.
In May this year several thousand protested against land-grabs, blocked roads and a railway line in north eastern China, and had riot police sent against them.
On the streets
A great many towns and cities have seen protests and riots against both local officials and police.
One important example was a movement in a southern city in 2007 against the building of a polluting factory. Campaigners claimed to have sent a million text messages, organised marches and lobbied officials.
And they won.
Many more protests have followed, some of which have turned violent, but all with specific, achievable demands.
In the last year, for example, city after city has seen protests against forced evictions and demolitions of old buildings.
At the other end of the spectrum are spontaneous riots against police violence.
In June 2009, in the city of Shishou in central China, a young man’s suspicious death led to two nights of fighting with the police.
It is likely that many more such incidents take place and are never reported.
Not all are progressive—there have been several race riots, targeting both migrants from other parts of China and Africans in southern cities, but these are rare. Overwhelmingly these outbreaks are anti-police, anti-official and anti-rich.
Xinjiang and Tibet
Xinjiang and Tibet are two large but sparsely populated areas in western and south-western China, where the majority of the population are not ethnically Chinese.
Recent economic growth has brought almost no benefit to local workers. In both places, new jobs have overwhelmingly gone to migrants from China, and people who find it increasingly difficult to make a living at traditional rural jobs now find that there’s no work in the towns either.
In 2008 Tibet saw its largest ever protest movement, with most of the protests taking place in areas that have long been absorbed into Chinese provinces. Protesters raised the banned Tibetan flag in several places, and fought with Chinese police and troops.
In 2009, Xinjiang saw the bloodiest protest in its history, although it was essentially limited to the capital city.
There are a number of key differences between Tibet and Xinjiang, and the rest of China, when it comes to protests.
The first is that while protests will often start with limited demands, when repressed they quickly turn into protests against Chinese rule.
The second is the scale of repression. In most protests few people are arrested, and it is rare for the police to deliberately kill. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the police shoot to kill.
The working class
The strikes earlier this year show real steps forward in organisation, and were offensive rather than defensive. They mark the latest stage in a militancy that revived from the mid-1990s onwards.
Factory closures in the late 1990s provoked huge protests. These won a crucial victory. Pension obligations were transferred from individual factories to the central government, so that managers could no longer claim to have no money.
In the newly-industrialised areas, however, strikes spread still further, and by 2008 the China Labour Bulletin could produce a report based on 100 strikes across China.
Most focused on defensive demands, often around closures brought on as the economic crisis of 2008 started to bite.
As the exporting industries recovered, workers have discovered a number of advantages they didn’t have before. One is numbers—the effect of the one-child policy has been to greatly reduce the potential numbers of migrant workers coming from the countryside.
The other is workers’ access to the technology that they are producing, such as mobile phones and web discussion boards. These allow spreading news on a scale that the state cannot easily censor.
And information matters. Earlier this year, the first car plant struck with very exact demands about parity with other plants—the second one struck because they knew the first one had. Other strikes showed similar knowledge.
The other advantage workers have is that as capitalists invest in more sophisticated technology, they need a more skilled and settled workforce. So the rights given to settled urban workers have gradually been extended to migrant workers, and the shortage of appropriate workers will tighten the squeeze.
China’s workers have won the rights to protest and to strike, not had them handed down from above, and that makes a big difference.
While China’s rulers have become more powerful by comparison with the US or the European Union, they have arguably less power over their own population than they did 20 years ago.
Voice from the struggle: ‘We must maintain unity and not let the representatives of capital divide us’
A two week strike by over a thousand workers at a Honda components plant in Foshan, in Guangdong province, in May and early June set off the wave of strikes across China.
The China Labour Bulletin interviewed one of the workers at the factory during the dispute.
“The first demand was about wages, benefits and bonuses; the second is that no striker is fired,” said the worker.
A third demand that “the union chairman must be got rid of, and a new union voted in,” was added after officials from the state-run union beat up workers at the factory.
“The cost of living has risen; buying vegetables and daily necessities is more expensive… [workers] can’t keep up with the cost of living, let alone save any money to send back home.
“The union has not represented us. That union has only represented the company… They have never taken us workers into consideration… Now everyone wants that union chairman removed, and the union totally reorganised, with new elections.”
During the strike the workers elected a 16-strong committee to represent them. The factory committee issued an open letter.
“We must maintain a high degree of unity and not let the representatives of capital divide us,” the letter urged.
“This factory’s profits are the fruits of our bitter toil … This struggle is not just about the interests of our 1,800 workers. We also care about the rights and interests of all Chinese workers.”
The workers won pay rises of between 24 percent and 33 percent. Their success led to a wave other strikes in the car industry and across China.