China’s days of protest

Dougald Hine
16 June 2004

By the second night, the onlookers outnumbered the demonstrators; but at the height of the protest 6-7,000 textile workers had occupied People’s Square, chanting and singing outside the government buildings. None of them had been paid in months, and now they were being laid off.

Their demonstration was tolerated up to a point. If the authorities had wanted, it could have been over in minutes. All the same, three were hospitalised with broken limbs when police in riot gear subdued protestors. One pregnant woman miscarried after being beaten.

At lunchtime on the second day, with the thermometer climbing over thirty degrees, workers in blue overalls occupied every patch of shade in the park. They had takeaway boxes and bottles of ice tea. For a moment it could have been a works’ outing picnic.

“People are saying we must go and support them,” a local man told me. “We must take water and food for them.”

This was the story of the demonstration: not the chanting of the workers, but the solidarity of the crowd that came to see them.

A fragile miracle In the west, the speed of China’s conversion to capitalism has been more marvelled at than questioned. The business leaders who queued to meet the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, on his May 2004 tour of European capitals are entranced by relentless growth of over 7% per year.

These figures convert into the apartment buildings rising across China’s city skylines like a bar chart. But also to the squalor of the migrant labourers building them. Leaving their families and travelling thousands of miles from the poor provinces of Henan and Shaanxi, they are shunned by locals and sleep in crowded dormitories or the shells of the unfinished buildings they work on by day.

Here is one of their destinations: a factory reached through the middle gate of a new archway, the name of the company spelt out in shiny letters overhead. Inside, the compound is a self-contained village with apartment buildings, shops, a clinic, all built around the factory itself. Despite the impressive entrance and a smart office block half way down the central avenue, the paint is peeling on most of the buildings and at the far end weeds push through the tarmac. In the late morning, men and women stand talking on corners or sit under the trees. Most have nothing else to do.

For more information on labour conditions and protests in China, see the China Labour Bulletin

This is where the blue-overalled workers marched from, along Petroleum Artery to the city centre. As state employees, they once had job security, access to free medical care, education and welfare. What remained of that stability was cut away when the factory was sold to a private company. Then, at the beginning of 2004, their salaries stopped being paid. Some said the new owners had begun selling off equipment. The factory may simply have failed to compete in a free market, but most believe they are victims of corruption.

Corruption itself is not new in China. But what alarms many, even among the middle classes, is the way it has fused with the new market practices. As long as enterprises remained owned by the state, even local officials who feathered their nests had an interest in preserving social stability – if only because any signs of unrest would invite punishment from Beijing. By contrast, private owners are seen as irresponsible, ready to disappear if they can take enough with them.

“Before, our country was at one extreme, now we seem to be rushing to the other,” one small businessman told me. “There should be somewhere in the middle.”

The official line is that economic progress is the precondition of improving social conditions; the faster change happens, the better for all. The sufferings of the workers are the birthpangs of a new age, China’s own industrial revolution.

openDemocracy writers debate how a nation’s economy impacts on the lives of workers in the case of Bangladesh:

How far down such optimism runs – within individuals and within society – is hard to gauge. In any case, for many of those whose labour is laying the foundation of economic growth, the benefits are hard to see.

China’s workers stand up

According to China’s ministry of public security, 2003 saw 58,000 “mass incidents”, the government’s preferred term for public protests – a rise of 15% on 2002. The causes given are a checklist of the side-effects of economic reform: wage disputes, social welfare issues, restructuring of state-owned enterprises, and evictions.

At one extreme are the unpaid migrant workers in Beijing who have taken to staging, and sometimes completing, suicide bids as a negotiating tool. One member of a team will climb the building and threaten to jump unless the employers pay up. With no clear legal channels available, some feel this is their only option.

More common are sit-ins outside factories or local government headquarters. Workers respond to the failings of private employers by calling on the state for help. Sometimes, a protest becomes a riot. A recent dispute over evictions in the southern city of Shenzhen ended with building workers pelting officials with bricks. In 2000, it took police three days to regain control of Yangjiazhangzi, a town in Liaoning province, after 20,000 sacked miners went on the rampage.

The textile workers had promised, without local government action, to walk 400 kilometres over the mountains to the regional capital. But after a week, some kind of deal was reached. Rumours suggested that the authorities “bought” one of the leaders and arrested others. Workers involved in the protest have been summoned to police and security bureau interviews. Then, just to remind everyone that Beijing is watching, the city got a surprise visit from a top party official.

“You shouldn’t worry,” someone told me. “The situation has been resolved.” Many who had supported the workers were glad of a settlement, even if it seemed heavy-handed. “You can’t look at China through western eyes.”

What stays with me, though, is the sense that for all the flashiness of the new China, the brash wealth of its elite, the authorities here could not count on the kind of support in facing down the workers that underpinned the economic reforms of Thatcherism in Britain during the 1980s. Sheer power may be a brittle as well as a brutal substitute.

openDemocracy writers offer different views of China’s recent past and future:

The next convulsion

The power of the Communist Party and its capacity to infiltrate all areas of life make it unlikely that organised workers’ networks will emerge in China. Independent trades unions are banned and labour activists receive long prison sentences. The media is instructed not to refer to protests, so news spreads by rumour. The protests themselves seem to be spontaneous rather than coordinated.

The monopoly of power stifles political argument and social dissent alike. The extension of the franchise in Britain was a major factor in defusing the class tensions of Victorian society. The economically disenfranchised of today’s India can punish their government at the ballot box. No such release exists for their counterparts in the world’s most populous nation.

But could persisting economic inequalities one day trigger demonstrations on a scale that would destabilise China’s system? This certainly worries the government. Its new, “fourth generation” leaders have tried to identify themselves with the workers and address the concerns of migrants and the rural poor. Their officials estimate that economic growth must stay above 7% to prevent a breakdown of public order, yet the mechanisms for generating growth are themselves socially corrosive. So the stability of this emerging superpower depends on its continuing to defy economic gravity.

Most of China’s adult population was raised on a blend of nationalism and workers’ solidarity. It may be a mistake to assume that the swift pace of economic change and the Orwellian reorientation of the Communist Party leadership have been accompanied by a deep-seated shift of mentality among the people.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations come and go, here and across the country. A British academic once said that he spent the first fifteen years of his career trying to persuade colleagues that Marx didn’t get it all right, and the next fifteen arguing he didn’t get it all wrong. Irony would be too weak a word if, should China’s economic miracle begin to falter, the People’s Republic were overthrown by a proletarian revolution.

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