It is not the most common experience to be shocked by what one reads in a Chinese newspaper. But this was my reaction in mid-May 2010, when I discovered that China's media were reporting quite openly on a strike by almost 2,000 workers at Honda's Nanhai plant in Foshan, Guangdong province. To report a strike has traditionally been taboo for the press, but the fact that Honda is a foreign company in this case apparently gave editors the chance to test the limits of censorship.
May and June quickly turned into strike season as a succession of large-scale walk-outs rippled across Guangdong, then spread to Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Chongqing, Shandong, Shanxi, Gansu, Henan and Hebei. As the wave gained momentum, domestic state-owned and private firms as well as foreign companies were hit. It was mass action in pursuit of higher wages that has been unheard of in China on such a scale for over thirty years. The strike of workers at a Panasonic subsidiary company in Shanghai in August 2010 is but one example of the way that the struggles are contiuing and even spreading.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded on the strength of labour movements, even if often far from successful ones. Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and other party leaders were all involved at one time or another in the effort to gain political and economic traction by inciting workers to strike.
The question of the role of labour movements remained alive after the revolution of 1949, when private companies still occupied a relatively large share of the country's economy and in many cases class opposition between workers and their capitalist overseers remained as acute as ever. But when in 1954 the party published the first constitution of the new state, it made no mention of a worker's right to go on strike.
The cost of exclusion
The second constitution was drafted in 1975, towards the end of the decade-long cultural revolution. It was then that Mao Zedong extended two new rights to China's citizens: the right to “speak freely, air views fully, hold great debates, and write big-character posters”; and the right to strike.
The granting of the “four great rights” is easy to understand, for they were critical to furthering the aims of the cultural revolution. But allowing strikes is a little harder to fathom. By 1975, China had long since eliminated all private enterprise; companies were either “owned by the people” or “owned by the collective”. Since workers were theoretically their own masters, who was there to strike against?
But to Mao, this wasn't an issue. In his view, strikes were needed to oppose “bureaucratism”, which he then believed pervaded the CCP to such a degree that it was creating a “bourgeoisie within the party”. What better weapon to turn against ideologically suspect bureaucrats than their own workers?
A further revision in 1978 gave China its third constitution. Its fourth constitution arrived in 1982, soon after the start of the reform era under Deng Xiaoping: a time when the country was hurrying to divest itself of Mao and the legacy of his revolution. In this iteration, the right to strike was expunged. In the almost three decades since then, the pace of change in Chinese society has been reflected in numerous amendments to the document.
During this time, China's system of property ownership has come full circle; private companies now make up 70% of the economy, and most workers are once more hired commodities (albeit supposedly valued ones) rather than being their own supposed bosses. But the right to strike is yet to make a comeback. Indeed, the shift in ownership rights has led to a gradual but distinct decline in Chinese workers’ living conditions.
During Mao's reign, absolute standards of living remained very low, but workers did enjoy welfare benefits (political, economic, healthcare and social) to a degree next only to party cadres - a treatment grounded in the orthodox ideological view that “the proletariat are the nation's leaders”. China's workers, free of any danger of losing their jobs, ate securely from the “iron rice-bowl”. But the arrival of Deng Xiaoping's reforms foreshadowed the end of their days as lifelong servants of the state. Soon, they found themselves the short-term employees of a middle-manager, their fate suddenly much less certain.
But the plight of the rural migrant labourers that have flowed steadily into the ranks of China's manufacturing workforce has endured even harder treatment than those Chinese workers fortunate enough to hold urban residential status. They have arrived from remote and backward corners of the country, often with little education, and enjoy none of the social welfare extended to the urban citizens they live alongside. Worse, their poor level of organisation means that even lowly subcontractors - let alone their bosses - can bully them with impunity. This is the domestic face of China's competitive advantage abroad – an army of hundreds of millions of underpaid migrant workers with barely any safety-net and fewer rights.
The only choice
But the situation is changing. Today's migrant workers are a new generation, mostly born in the 1980s and 1990s. Almost all have at least a middle-school and often a high-school education. Many have grown up in the cities their parents migrated to in search of work, and have forged much closer ties to these places than their parents ever did. Their fathers and grandfathers would often return to their fields and villages if the work ran out, but for the youngsters there is no way back. It's not just that they lack farming experience – many of them simply have no desire to live in the countryside. In their hearts, they have always belonged to the city.
The Honda strikes in Guangdong, and the earlier suicide (half of them in May 2010) of twelve workers at the Foxconn company in Shenzhen, are alike reflection of the spiritual condition of this generation of migrant workers. In losing hope of realising their dreams, some have preferred to end their lives. But far more have chosen to fight the “fat cats” and seize for themselves the fair and equal treatment they so desire. Moreover, from the very start their struggle has been accompanied by a set of clear political demands, such as the right to set up fully independent trades unions to represent workers' interests.
This rising tide of strikes has severely shaken all levels of China's political establishment. It is clear that the authorities were mentally unprepared for such an event, and they have struggled to come up with contingency plans. The central government is busy researching policies to rebalance the country's income-distribution, but this can only be a long-term game (see "China's unstable stability", 3 August 2010). Most local governments, meanwhile, remain firmly on the side of the managers; local officials steadfastly refuse to support any demand for better wages, since this risks damaging the image of their “investment environments”; and local authorities have so far been unflinching in their use of violent force to suppress the strikes.
As a result, the only avenue left open to workers is to organise themselves as a cohesive force to counterbalance their managers in any negotiations. The intensification of government crackdowns means that the demand for the right to form independent organisations will grow stronger, and this in turn will become one of the most energetic driving forces of China's civil society. In the the next twenty-to-thirty years, the struggles of China's working classes to safeguard their rights and interests will become a great tide.
This article was translated from Chinese by Oliver Lough