The making of the Chinese working class
Internal contradictions: The aftermath of a 2011 riot by Chinese workers.
China has made it. Its GDP continues to increase around 10% a year (phenomenal!), it has a leading and indispensable role in the global market, and it has a large but stable population whose living standards continue to improve. China really is a success. The IMF writes that “by nearly all accounts [Deng’s] strategy has worked spectacularly.” Deng Xiaoping was the leader of the CCP who introduced economic changes under the banner of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ in the late seventies. The growing strength of the Chinese economy is attributed to these policies and were the beginning of what has been three and a half decades of radical neoliberalization of the economy.
However the praise China has reaped in the last few decades has come almost exclusively from its ‘successful’ economic policies. Most mainstream news articles about China ignore the occupations of Tibet, Inner Mongolia and East Turkestan or the high numbers of Chinese subjected to torture and executions. Sure, these issues pop up and now again, but the real focus stays on news pertaining to its steady GDP growth and its status as the world’s powerhouse (read ‘slave labour’). Such strong growth and economic stability is seen by many as a purely positive development. Growing inequalities between the wealthy minority and the rest of the population tell a different story however. The Gini coefficient, a statistic measuring wealth distribution, grows yearly. Widely recognized as an important indicator of population health, China’s .047 shows a substantially higher disparity between the wealthy and poor than the recognized “warning level” for social instability at 0.4.
Unsurprisingly, the goodwill many states have towards China ultimately comes from its role in the world market. The profits corporates can make from paying wretched wages and forcing dangerous work conditions on Chinese workers automatically makes the dictatorship that supports such exploitation an attractive ally. We don’t usually hear about workers’ lives (or deaths) in our mainstream media and our governments are ever positive to the CCP because having a slave population benefits the wealthy who control our television stations and our politicians. Consequently, the effects of the CCP’s capitalist policies to their own population are ignored. In this context Chinese workers committing suicide or dying from overwork or dangerous working conditions are isolated cases. The depth and breadth of economic oppression that the entire working-class faces is subordinated to a few footnotes. Furthermore, ‘Made in China’ computers, cellphones, clothes, etc are affordable for those living in developed countries. We are blinded both by our own comfort and by the wealthy who control our world.
Despite what we are told, the success that China has had in accumulating wealth is not reflected by raised living standards for the average Chinese. The decline in absolute poverty, those living on less than $1/day, has still left 150 million behind. The reduction in the proportion of absolute poverty is a statistic that needs more qualifying anyway. Despite growth to become the biggest economy in the world, the 16% living in absolute poverty today has not changed drastically since 1985. The most dramatic decline was from 76% in 1980 to 23% in 1985. The continual neoliberalization of the country has not benefitted most Chinese.
The divide between rich and the poor is further exacerbated by the plight of particularly disadvantaged groups including ethnic minorities and migrant workers and their families. Migrant workers, or the ‘floating population’, officially number 120 million (230 million counting their families). Many leave their partners and children in their rural hometowns and send $65.4 billion back home. The discrimination many face as well as the displacement and often unpaid wages manifested itself in 2005 when migrant worker Wang Binyu stabbed five people, killing four, when he was abused and beaten up by his bosses for trying to get wages he was owed.
The CCP’s ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ is a gross perversion of socialist principles and comes at the price of the exploitation of a labour force numbering 780 million. Deng’s economic reforms saw the deregulation of prices and wages, the decollectivization of farmland, opening up to foreign investment (or rather, permission to exploit the Chinese labour force), and the privatization and contracting out of state-owned assets. The name is simply a whitewash of a neoliberal agenda that has seen the destruction of the welfare system and the betrayal of the proletariat, the very people the CCP waxes lyrical about existing for the benefit to. The ever-increasing numbers of workers taking action in strikes and demonstrations against such anti-working-class policies is hopeful, however.
With the talk surrounding the imminent arrival of the twelfth Five-year plan the CCP is clearly worried about what they call ‘mass incidents’. Yang Weimin from the National Development and Reform Commission says while earlier plans focused on building “a strong country”, the 2012-2017 plan focuses on “prosperity for the people”. Such rhetoric has been spoken for years, however. The most recent Hu-Wen administration has been talking the people (rather than the economy) since they established themselves in 2003. It stinks of concession for the sake of dispelling worker rage. Reform for the sake of retaining power might slow down the oppressed but it will never be a solution. Small reforms can be disempowering when they take the edge of protesters’ rage and curtail the potency of revolutionary sentiment. The heavy-handed tyranny of the CCP, however, makes any small concession a big victory for those who withstood the fear of the state monster.
-Rose W, SA.
Timeline of recent strikes
26-8 December – At an LG Display plant in Nanjing workers from one of the four buildings walked out. After assembling outside they were joined by workers from the three other buildings shutting down the entire plant. 8000 workers went on strike, initially attempting to negotiate with LG managers but then walking out once they realized their concerns were not being taken seriously. These negotiations were over different end-of-year bonuses for Chinese workers (one month pay) to Korean workers (six months pay).
27 December – In Guangzhou at Alei Siti factory workers strike over annual bonus reductions. They work 12-hr days. In April 2011 the workers went on strike for higher wages and got a 300RMB increase/month.
30 December – Thousands at Sichaun Chemical Works went on strike for better wages and annual bonuses.
3 January 2012 - At a Foxconn factory in Wuhan, Hubei 300 workers gathered on the roof of the factory and threatened to commit mass suicide. This came after management refused to increase pay, issued them with an ultimatum of quitting with some compensation or returning to work without a pay rise, and then dishonoured the agreement refusing the promised compensation for those who quit.
4 January – 2000-10,000 Pangang steel workers walked out to protest low wages in Chengdu, Sichuan. They demonstrated in the streets and were beaten by authoritarian police forces numbering 1000 armed with pepper spray. Five were arrested.
5-8 January – At Snow Beer in Dalian 1000 workers launched a strike and successively picketed the factory for three days in protest of low wages and poor benefits.
7 January – 1300 workers walked out of a toy factory over unpaid wages and poor working conditions in Wuzhou, Guangxi.
11 January – In Dongguan, Guangdong 1000 workers took to the streets over the sudden closure of the Creative Master factory they worked at.
12 January - 1000 workers at Foxconn in Yantai, Shandong stopped work over unequal pay for the same jobs.
13 January – 2000 workers went on strike at a Changhe-Chang’an factory in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi after being informed the company was switching from a partnership with Suzuki to Mazda. The closure will leave thousands of workers jobless, workers who are already struggling on a meager 1700RMB/mth. Workers stormed management’s offices and then rallied on the streets for hours, accompanied by heavily-clad police forces.
14 January – Another strike by 4000 workers at a Sanyo factory in Shekou, Shenzhen when the company was sold. Workers were told just a week before the takeover and not offered any compensation for their previous work despite it changing their medical and pension benefits. Four people were arrested in clashes with police.
16 January – 8000 workers at a Foster Electric plant in Nanning, Guangxi walked off the job after being denied their usual end-of-year bonuses despite bosses retaining their bonuses. Police blockaded the main exit to prevent them from demonstrating in the street
This is an incomplete timeline compiled from various local sources and two international sources (ChinaStrikes.crowdmap.com and ChinaLabourWatch.org). Whilst Chinese workers are increasingly utilizing the internet to get news out, dissent remains censored to a high degree.