Every hour 15 Chinese workers are killed in industrial accidents. More than 120 million “peasant workers” who have migrated into the cities are “getting up earlier than roosters, and working harder than oxen, but eating less than pigs eat”.
Strikes are illegal—the official trade union in China is run by the state and pays no interest to the lives of workers. In 2002 they gave their “model workers awards” to 21 bosses!
Despite this more and more workers are going on strike. Most strikes have been in response to the closures of 190,000 state run companies.
Two months ago, 6,000 textile workers in the recently privatised Tianwang textile factory in Shaanxi province went on strike. They maintained the strike for almost seven weeks.
Police vehicles armed with water cannon were prevented from entering the factory when workers not participating in the strike and family members ran out to stop them.
The strike ended with more than 20 workers arrested, but the company had to meet many of the workers’ demands.
The number of strikes in the Pearl River Delta region, which recently enjoyed an unprecedented boom, is increasing.
The boom has increased workers’ confidence, and the region is suffering from temporary labour shortages.
In Shenzhen 3,000 workers at Computime went on strike on 7 October. A worker cried out, “I came here to make money to build my family a house, but I haven’t got paid for the last eight months.”
In Guangzhou television assembly workers at Shanlin Technology had to work 14 hours a day in order to meet increased demand—but their wages remained the same. They won a wage increase by striking in mid-October.
It is not just strikes that are spreading. The magazine Outlook reports that the number of demonstrations has increased from 8,700 in 1993 to 58,000 in 2003—on average 160 demonstrations each day.
Some sections of the ruling class fear a return to the days of the Tiananmen Square protest, which shook the ruling system of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989.
Think-tanks in the capital, Beijing, are rumoured to be running computer simulations to calculate the odds of such a protest.
Chinese society has changed since 1989. The Chinese ruling class has grown stronger during 25 years of economic growth.
But the consciousness of the workers has also changed. News of strikes is quickly disseminated through the internet, e-mails and mobile phones.
History does not simply repeat itself. However, the conditions are maturing such that, in the words of former Chinese ruler Mao Zedong, “one spark can set a whole field on fire”.
Kim Yong-wook is a member of the South Korean group All Together