Working class struggle is an important part of modern Chinese history, and is rising
Honda workers on strike in China.
In a late industrialising country, the Chinese working class emerged and became organised only in the early 20th century after the country was forced to open up to global capitalism.
However, shaped by harsh economic exploitation and foreign semi-colonial domination, China’s working class quickly established itself in the space of a few decades. This culminated in mass protests and strikes between 1925 and 1927.
Given the conditions in which it found itself, the labour movement could not but have both an economic and political focus. However, it was soon brutally crushed by the pro-capitalist Nationalist Party. For the next few decades, China’s industrial working class on the whole remained a weak political force.
Under Mao’s state-led industrialisation after the 1949 Chinese Revolution, the urban industrial working class grew in number and strength.
Urban workers were entitled to extensive social welfare and employment security. As a price for this state paternalism, the urban working class was politically subordinate to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Throughout the Maoist period, the CCP forbade independent labour organising and established the All-China Federation of Trade Unions as the only recognised union in China. It had branches in every state-owned enterprise, serving primarily welfare functions under the control of party branches.
Despite its increased strength and periodic outbursts of protests throughout the Maoist period, the Chinese working class under Mao did not become an independent organised force.
With China’s restoration of capitalism from the late 1970s, workers’ rights began to be significantly eroded.
The process of restructuring state-owned enterprises along market principles started in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. This led to the privatisation and closure of state-owned enterprises.
Tens of millions of state workers — usually less skilled workers in their 40s and 50s — were laid off or forced into early retirement. They could not easily find new jobs due to their age and lack of education.
The remaining state workers lost guaranteed job security and were forced to sign contracts with fewer social welfare provisions.
Chinese workers resisted the detrimental effects of capitalist restoration during the 1980s. Many joined the student-led demonstrations in 1989 that culminated in the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre.
Some worker activists set up autonomous trade unions in Tiananmen Square. They put forward a more radical critique of China’s authoritarian capitalism than the liberal students and intellectuals.
Although relatively few in number, the worker activists were far more determined and militant than the students.
Before the autonomous unions could further consolidate, the movement was decisively crushed. Worker activists were severely punished in the aftermath of the crackdown.
But by the late 1990s, in the face of the restructuring and privatisation of state-owned enterprises, Chinese workers organised large numbers of protests. However they were unable to stop the state's plans.
Labour protests in state-owned enterprises became less frequent from the early 2000s. However, workers who migrated from rural areas to work in China’s southern export-processing zones initiated their own struggles.
Discriminated against by the household registration system and forced to work in unregulated Satanic Mills-like conditions, rural migrant workers organised protests against low or unpaid wages and violations of their basic labour rights.
Such protests were typically met with violence from company-hired thugs and armed police.
Due to the repression, protests remained largely localised. Independent labour organising continues to be strictly forbidden by the state, and labour activists and lawyers representing workers are dealt with harshly.
To ease tensions, the Chinese state enacted protective labour laws to channel industrial disputes into legal institutions. The minimum wage was raised annually to preempt strikes.
But implementation of these laws is usually non-existent in the private sector, and wages remain low despite minimum wage rises. It is not surprising that workers have continued to take direct action to make their demands heard.
The autoworkers’ strikes at Honda plants in 2010 captured international attention. The striking workers at the Honda component parts plants were able to shut down production in all four of Honda’s assembly plants in China.
They won significant wage rises after government and state-controlled union officials intervened to mediate the disputes.
The autoworkers' struggle also inspired more than 100 copycat strikes in the region. Media reporting of the strikes was banned by the government for fear of inciting more.
But such copycat strikes have been commonplace in recent years, as the poor conditions of the working class were similar everywhere.
But there have been other examples of labour activism. In late 2010, strikes broke out in the Dalian Economic Zone involving nearly 70,000 workers from 73 plants. A similar large-scale strike took place in the same economic zone in 2005.
Taxi and truck drivers as well as sanitation workers have also engaged in collective actions in recent years to demand better pay and conditions.
In November, workers from plants owned by Pepsi in more than five cities launched a coordinated strike against a corporate takeover, which they believed would lead to layoffs and reductions of wages and benefits.
This was followed by several strikes in China’s export-processing zones late last year. Notably, two major strikes also took place in state-owned chemical and steel plants in December and January. Both involved thousands of workers.
The CCP has clearly recognised the rising power of the working class. It has sought a more conciliatory approach, intervening in industrial disputes to negotiate limited wage rises to restore industrial peace.
It has also directed the state-controlled unions to establish branches and set up collective bargaining in private and foreign invested enterprises to preempt and mediate disputes. These state-controlled bureaucratic unions have little interest in representing workers, let alone organising them.
Not surprisingly, workers have no faith in the state and management-controlled unions. Whenever they can, they have demanded democratising these unions by electing their own representatives.
The state suppression of independent labour organisation has continued to block the formation of independent labour unions. This has held back the development of organised working class struggle in China.
Through industrial actions, workers have made important gains in wages and working conditions, but these are isolated and limited victories. It is difficult for workers to build on these gains because they do not have their own organisations to sustain their struggles.
The victories have also come under attack by factory closures, as Chinese export continues to be affected by the slowdown of global economy and foreign export markets.
With labour struggles growing in the coastal regions and wages rising, manufacturing capital has launched a counter-offensive by relocating production facilities to China’s hinterland in north and western China. It aims to take advantage of the cheaper and less militant labour force there.
Despite such obstacles and counter-offensives, there is no doubt that working-class struggle will not slow down in 2012. We are likely to see more frequent strikes and greater assertiveness and coordination.
Workers will become more confident and skilled in organising and sustaining struggles.
The prospect of achieving significant changes in the short-term, however, should not be exaggerated. It will take a long and continuing struggle for workers to achieve political and economic democracy.
But when it does, it will have a profound impact on the global working class struggle against capitalism.
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