China, the view from the ground

The self-organising efforts of migrant workers and rights activists across China offer a vital insight into the nature and future of modern Chinese society, says Hsiao-Hung Pai.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
18 September 2012

The experience of migrant workers in China, who number well over 200 million in this society of 1.2 billion, is a vital route to understanding the nature of present-day Chinese society. Migrants are the most marginalised and unorganised group of workers in China. Many feel that they are like scattered sand (san sha), a phrase that evokes their lack of collective strength and power to change things. In face of unpaid wages and all levels of abuses by companies, they often find themselves fighting their battles alone - and even when they take their bosses to court, this rarely ends in victory.

An example of such protest is an incident in Yunnan province, in China's southwest, where the tourism company Xinhua Shizhaizi owed 8 million yuan (£800,000) to 500 migrant workers for a construction project. They were helpless but were determined to fight to the end, even though no institutions and no media would come to their aid. Eventually, thirteen children of these migrants joined their parents and held up signs in front of the public - "I want to eat, to go to school, to drink milk, to eat cookies" - as part of their demand that the developer pay the wages owed to their parents.

It was a sign of how desperate and isolated the workers were that their children had to protest on their behalf on the streets. In this case, the company was fined; but in so many others, developers can count on their political connections to avoid responsibility, and migrants and workers are left with nowhere to turn to.

Indeed, migrant-workers’ efforts to self-organise and build collective strength - as I found in researching my book Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants (Verso, 2012) - have always met with barriers set up by a hostile state. Across China, it is very difficult for many social groups to become approved and registered as civil-society organisations. As a result, 80% of existing civil groups in China are illegal. Any organisation that openly advocates the rights of migrant workers or the welfare of disadvantaged groups in minority regions and rural areas has no chance of getting official approval and registration. It faces the tough choice of either working unofficially and clandestinely (such as setting itself up as a limited company and thus being exposed to monitoring and restriction of its activities) or staying completely "undocumented" and going underground.

A repressive instinct

So the majority of migrant workers’ NGOs aren’t registered and thus effectively illegal. Most associations have grown up since the late 1990s, in response to the exploitation and abuse by employers (and in face of the ineffectiveness of the official state-run trade-union body, the ACFTU). The initial centre of migrant-worker "self-help" groups was in southern China, particularly Guangdong, the heartland of China’s manufacturing enterprises and a magnet for international capital. In 1998, a Workers' Service Unit was set up there in the city of Guangzhou, providing legal aid and educational training to migrant workers. Several other self-help organisations were formed in the 2000s. They all played a significant role in helping migrants to adjust to urban living, raise awareness of labour rights, and provided an alternative space for migrants to seek solutions to the injustices that they were facing.

But insufficient funding and (more significantly) constant repression from local authorities meant these organisations have always struggled to survive. Even as this article was being written, it is reported that ten groups offering help to migrant workers who live and work in Shenzhen (also in Guangdong province) have suffered random inspections and evictions by local authorities, some of which turned violent.

The Dagongzhe Migrant Worker Centre was one of the first to be caught in the crackdown, with workers evicted from their offices in July 2012 after the water and electricity supply to their office was cut off. A group called the Little Grass Workers’ Home organisation had property belonging to it confiscated in August, while the Hand in Hand Workers’ Home was evicted from its offices on 9 September. Geoffrey Crowthall of the China Labour Bulletin, a research and rights project based in Hong Kong, reports that there has been a sustained campaign of harassment against NGOs in Shenzhen.

A protection vacuum

In Beijing too, migrant-workers’ organisations are subjected to close monitoring and control. This means that these groups can survive only as long as they remain ineffective. When I talked to migrant construction-workers in Beijing, for instance, I found that most were not even aware of the existence of such groups.

There are more than one million migrant construction workers in Beijing alone, most employed on around 10,000 building-sites in the city. Even the state administration of work safety acknowledges the poor working conditions in Beijing’s construction industry and admits it has one of the highest levels of accidents and deaths in the whole country. This was particularly the case in the years prior to the Olympic games in 2008. But today, four years on, things are unchanged: the labour-contract law that came into effect in January 2008 remains ineffective (and is simply ignored by many employers). The majority of migrants work without contracts, for employers who follow no health and safety procedures. It is estimated that 700,000 migrant construction-workers in the capital have no accident insurance.

Moreover, alongside very high safety risks and little protection, migrant workers lack even guaranteed wages. On a street corner in eastern Beijing, a jobseeker from Shandong told me: "Having given our sweat and blood, we can’t even be sure to be paid. Millions have gone into construction work in the past decades...Around 40 million people from the countryside have become construction workers... The majority of this country’s builders are migrants like us. But we have not won respect."

He continued: "Most of our folks from Shandong work in construction in Beijing, and many of them work on the building sites in Daxing [a district of migrant communities in southern Beijing]. I don’t want to end up like them in that dump of Daxing. Every now and then I hear about what happens to them - either withholding wages till the end of the year, or not paid at all. If I had a choice to go back home, I wouldn’t stay a second here."

Migrant workers' absence of protection is reinforced by the role of the state-run ACFTU. It was only in 2003 that migrant workers were allowed to become union members for the first time. But the ACFTU has made little effort to recruit migrant workers, and almost none who work in the construction industry are ACFTU members. Their isolation means that migrants in the construction industry must organise their own protests and spontaneous strikes if their voices are to be heard. The same Shandong migrant told me about a protest of Chongqing migrants against their employer in Daxing when their wages were delayed without end. But without any institutional back-up, such actions are often treated with violence by the police or by thugs hired by employers.

A landmark village

Against all these odds, migrant workers all over China have attempted to organise themselves and present their own perspective on their place in society and their demands to better it. The migrants in Pi Village on the outskirts of Beijing are such an example. There is a museum of migrant culture and art there, founded by a former migrant worker called Sun Heng.

The village is in a township called Jinzhan, literally "Golden Lamp". It is only fifteen kilometres from Beijing city centre, yet even halfway through the trip there, with vast fields on both sides of the road, I felt I was travelling deep into rural China. Migrants started moving into Pi Village in the 1990s, and today they form around 90% of the 10,000 residents. They are mainly from Henan, Shandong and Sichuan, and work in construction and service industries in areas surrounding the capital as well as central Beijing.

Pi Village is a dust-covered little place, centred around a few lanes where villagers gather and chat. The museum is built in a siheyuan style (or Chinese quadrangles, a traditional type of housing comprised of a courtyard surrounded by four buildings). Alongside it is a centre staffed by ten migrants, with a theatre room used regularly by the local migrants. The museum itself has an exhibition room that displays background information on country-city migration and booklets produced by migrant children about their experience at schools in China's cities.

Sun Heng, founder and now curator of the museum, escorted me all the time as I looked at the exhibits, answering my questions very cautiously. Just before I left, he confessed that it is a rule "from the top" that none of his staff or villagers can talk to anyone from outside China. To have such official guidance imposed on a supposedly self-organised migrant-workers’ initiative is, as I realised later, a familiar experience for NGOs here.

Sun Heng and his colleagues carry on with their work nevertheless. The organisation offers educational opportunities for migrants in the village, such as an evening school for adults and a primary school for migrant children. As a result of the hukou (permit) system, which restricts migrants' residency rights, most migrant children in Beijing are not entitled to public education (while monthly tuition-fees in a Beijing primary school, which urban children don't have to pay, would cost a migrant parent two-thirds of their wages, effectively making education unaffordable). So in migrant townships and villages in and on the outskirts of Beijing, thousands of privately-run schools, like the one in Pi Village, have been set up to meet the needs of the migrant children who have no schools to go to while their parents work here.

As I was leaving the museum of migrant culture and art, I saw a slogan displayed on the wall of the exhibition room: "To work is glorious". This is the principle of Sun Heng’s group that set up the museum and the schools, a conscious alternative to the government mantra of Deng Xiaoping's reform era from the 1980s: "To get rich is glorious".

Sun Heng’s approach, constrained by the official instructions on handling external inquiries, is low-key. Yet I know the kind of courage it must have taken him to build up a centre to promote education for migrant workers. NGOs in China so often find themselves working against the tide in China; in the worst cases, organisers can be confronted with physical violence and threats to their personal safety.

A protest wave

Ever more frequently, migrant workers’ lack of channels to voice their claims and seek justice has created deep anger and frustration that is manifested in sporadic civil disobedience. The authorities describe such outbreaks as "mass incidents", and estimate that their number averages around 80,000 a year since 2008.

In late May 2012, for example, up to 600 migrant workers protested in Ruian, in Zhejiang province in eastern China, following the death of a 19-year-old worker, Yang Zhi, at the hands of his employer when he asked for owed wages to be paid. The workers smashed cars and protested in front of a government building. The protest ended only after the victim’s family received 300,000 yuan (£30,000) in compensation.

In late June, a riot broke out in Zhongshan following a clash between a local man and a migrant youth who then suffered injuries during police intervention. The protesters, up to 300 at the peak of the action, threw stones at government buildings and burned police cars; this was cited in the local press as "the latest in a stream of violent protests in Guangdong province linked to migrant workers against unequal wages and discrimination."

The increasing incidence of protest is a dramatic expression of migrant-workers' anger. Here and in other areas of civil society in China, the work of organisations is often carried by a few individuals who are always struggling upstream.

An activist's story

Chang Kun is a young activist who comes from Linquan of Anhui province, a place where peasants’ misery and local corruption was much documented in the influential investigation Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China's Peasants by journalists Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. "Linquan, with a population of 2.13 million, is China’s most populated county, and it is lagging behind in areas of public health and civil society development", he says. Chang had a strong desire to do something for rural communities, and saw the opportunity to organise like-minded people when he went to Urumqi as a student in Xinjiang Normal University in northwestern China.

Xinjiang in 2009 had the fourth highest number of cases of HIV/Aids in China (27,012 officially registered), according to Xinjiang's Aids prevention work committee, even as Aids prevention and education work conducted by grassroots civil-society organisations has been much suppressed.

In March 2004, Chang Kun - then 21 years old - had set up a student society, the Bowen Public Interest Society, at his Xinjiang university. Initially, the society worked to promote awareness of the Sars virus, but later evolved into focusing on issues of Aids prevention. "Through this ongoing work, I have come to realise that AIDS is a human-rights issue in this country", he told me.

In December 2004, Chang Kun’s student group was abruptly shut down by the university, without any justification. He therefore decided to develop his work outside of the campus, while remaining a student. In March 2005, he set up Snow Lotus (Xuelianhua) in Urumqi. Since then, the organisation worked to promote Aids awareness in the universities by setting up student societies, such as the Zhiai Society in the College of Finance and the Red Ribbon Society in University of Xinjiang. It distributed information about Aids prevention through the Snow Lotus bulletin, reaching thousands of readers, and campaigned to fight discrimination by organising seminars and forums and involving and mobilising youth in its education programmes.

At the height of its work, Snow Lotus had fifteen core volunteers; the total number of volunteers in cities all over Xinjiang reached 470. The scale and influence of Snow Lotus’s work began to alarm the authorities in Urumqi.

Chang Kun, however, was still full of optimism and commitment. In January 2006, he set up the China Youth HIV/Aids Assembly as an unregistered grassroots organisation. In September 2006, Snow Lotus mobilised protests against the dismissal of nineteen students in four high-schools in Urumqi on the grounds that they had hepatitis-B. The protests managed to bring this case to the knowledge of the outside world. At the same time, however, this paved the way for Snow Lotus’s forced closure.

The organisation was shut down by the civil-affairs bureau of Xinjiang’s regional government, and Chang Kun himself was expelled by Xinjiang Normal University. With no university to go to, he decided to leave Xinjiang; those left behind were forced further underground. Chang Kun was undeterred, and continued his work. In May 2010, he decided to focus on his place of origin, Linquan in Anhui province.

"I wanted to start this civil-rights education in my own hometown", he said. Thus, "Chang Kun’s Home" (also known as the Aibo Youth Centre) was established in 2010 with funds put together with the help of his parents and grandfather; the latter offered his house as the venue of a community centre and library where villagers could network and exchange information about public-interest and public-health issues, including Aids prevention and education.

Again, however, local authorities have raised the greatest barriers to Chang Kun's work. On 4 April, 2011, a meeting of the Aibo Youth Centre was invaded by plain-clothes police sent by the authorities. Chang Kun was beaten by one of the thugs and subsequently hospitalised. He attempted to sue the attacker, but a court has rejected his claim three times.

In November 2011, Chang Kun’s hundred-strong team of volunteers sent parcels of sweet potatoes to the governer of Anhui, Wang Sanyun, to urge him to act against the court’s decision to refuse his case. "As we say locally: if an official does not work for the people, he might as well go home and plant sweet potatoes" Chang Kun explains.

He continues: "The criminalisation of civil-society organisations is still a serious problem among the mass of local authorities. We need to continue to practice civil education solidly and try to build rights consciousness among people."

From migrant workers and HIV/Aids activists to campaigns over social issues such as housing demolitions and the environment, Chinese society is in ferment. The view from the ground, the regions and the marginalised gives a vital perspective on this society and where it is heading.

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