In early January, thousands of Chinese farmers fought a pitched battle with police in a village in the southern province of Guangdong.
Residents of Sanjiao township discovered that land that had been expropriated for road building was in fact being sold for factory development.
Local residents started a peaceful protest which lasted several days before being violently attacked by police wielding electric batons. One 13 year old girl was beaten to death.
China’s Communist Party government has been pushing neo-liberal economic policies for several years.
Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of economic development, driven by private companies, the state or foreign multinationals. At the same time spending on public services has been slashed. As a result China is now one of the most unequal societies on earth.
As the Sanjiao residents were fighting for their livelihoods, China’s new mega-rich were flaunting their wealth in the “Best of the best” awards. Multi-millionaires voted for their favourite luxury brands – from Ferrari cars to Cartier watches.
No wonder then that those on the receiving end of the neo-liberal agenda have been demonstrating and striking in increasing numbers. According to government figures 74,000 such “incidents” occurred in 2004 involving nearly four million people.
Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong, has been at the centre of China’s economic boom. While former villages like Shenzhen have grown into booming cities, the area has suffered pollution and land has been taken over for industrial development.
At the same time the bureaucracy in many rural areas has become enormously bloated. There are about 30 million rural officials in China.
Their salaries and growing appetite for perks are paid for by a variety of, often illegal, taxes. Corruption is endemic and local officials frequently act in collusion with business interests.
The central government, based in the capital Beijing, received 5,407 complaints about land seizures in 2004 and even more last year.
As the pressures on the rural population have increased the frequency of protests, the authorities have turned to harsher repression. Another protest in Guangdong last December ended when police opened fire on the demonstrators.
These villagers were also the victims of land expropriation by corrupt officials. Up to 20 of them were gunned down, the worst act of state violence since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Some reports suggested that Beijing, embarrassed by the ferocity of the assault, had detained a local official.
But, as Xu Youyu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the South China Morning Post, “The local governments have been doing things that embarrass the central government.
“But they know that even if Beijing is aware of their wrongdoings, that wouldn’t do them any harm as Beijing would have to rely on them to carry out policies and to keep local administrations in order.”
Today farmers, who previously would have blamed local officials for their problems are starting to blame Beijing.
Workers in the nearby cities have also faced police violence, but the government is clearly worried about provoking more widespread resistance and concessions have been made.
China Labour Bulletin reports that eight Shenzhen employers were arrested for non-payment of wages to 1,200 workers. Guangdong factories have been at the heart of recent labour unrest in China. And unpaid wages are the most common cause of strikes.
The problems facing workers and farmers have the same root cause – the government’s neo-liberal agenda. If they can unite their struggles, then Guangdong, the centre of the boom, could become the centre of resistance too.
To read Simon Gilbert’s article on China’s Strike Wave in the International Socialism journal go to www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=125&issue=107