Against the fetish of representation: class struggle in China beyond the leftist Grand Narrative

Against the fetish of representation: class struggle in China beyond the leftist Grand Narrative

An overview of the effects and causes of strikes and labor unrest in China over the last decade, and how what some leftists and NGOs advocate is inadequate for the advancement of class struggle in the country.

1 | introduction

China has seen an increase in social struggles in workplaces and elsewhere in recent years. Restricted by state and capitalist repression, these struggles happened without effective union representation. Facing the specter of the crisis and social unrest, capital and the state reorganized their repressive counter-strategies and introduced forms of mediation to regain control over the process of class re-composition. Meanwhile, labor activists and left-wing academics who support workers' struggles in China press for the establishment of 'independent' unions, following the leftist grand narrative of increasing class power through labor representation in the capitalist state. In that way they risk re-legitimizing (reformed) capitalist structures. In order to understand the potential for social struggles and the strategic decisions of those involved, we have to look at the historical dynamics of social change, in particular, the role of (union) representation and the integrating and pacifying forces of capitalism. This paper argues that the autonomous forms of workers' organizing in China could use their potential for enforcing profound social change while avoiding the mistakes made by movements elsewhere.

2 | global context

As a result of the global struggles in the 1960s and 1970s and the economic crisis, capital changed its Keynesian strategy globally and launched a counter attack, e.g. through austerity policies, wage cuts, and the relocation of industries. The latter led to new processes and areas of industrialization, massive rural-urban migration, and proletarianization in some parts of the world, in particular East Asia. In the old capitalist 'core' states, the formerly socialist states in Eastern Europe, as well as some developing countries, old working classes with relatively secure labor contracts and benefits were attacked1 and new working classes with relatively precarious labor conditions formed. Still, neither the attack on the old class composition nor the set-up of new industries and global production chains could ultimately solve the problems of capital. In that sense, the crisis of the late 2000s is an extension of the crisis of the 1970s. Just two years after the outbreak of the global crisis in 2008 we witnessed a wave of uprisings, strikes and other forms of resistance around the globe. All in all there have been more events of unrest than in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last phase of such global social upheaval.2 In many recent struggles, grassroots activity, self-organization and social anger pushed for more participatory and egalitarian social processes, for instance, in 2011 during the Arab rebellions, the Spanish M15 movement, the Greek uprisings, and the Occupy movement. At the same time, an institutionalized 'left' – often searching for a function and role in the state apparatus – has kept showing its interest and potential to re-legitimize a reformed state and reorganized capitalist structures. This statist reflex adds to the organizational and structural weaknesses of the struggles, and constricts the spaces for building a future in the present: social revolution.

3 | recompostion in china

In China, the crisis of the 'socialist' system culminated in the 1970s. The wave of struggles and the subsequent capitalist attack around the globe in the same period led to a formerly unlikely coalition of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with global private and state capital. The reforms that started in late 1970s made the country the 'factory of the world' by the late 1990s. The old working class was decomposed through the restructuring and down-sizing of the state industries and the destruction of the 'iron rice bowl', a set of social guarantees for parts of the urban workforce. Meanwhile, industrialization and rural-urban migration led to the establishment of a segmented labor market and the composition of a massive migrant working class of 200 to 300 million, exploited by foreign and Chinese capital and controlled and repressed by the state through strict political and social control measures.

Up until now, the proletarianization process of the migrants has remained somewhat unfinished, because the household registration laws (hukou) do not allow them to settle down in the city. The 'enclosures' through which peasants around the globe have lost their land and have had to migrate and sell their labor power in new capitalist workplaces was not repeated in China in the same way. Rather, for most migrant workers in China the return to the village and 'their' plot of land is blocked by the reality of low incomes in the countryside, unemployment, the lack of opportunities, and the subjective preference for 'modern' city-life.3

4 | new struggles

Industrialization, migration, and proletarianization have changed the social landscape in China. As elsewhere, migration is a process of forced mobility for capitalist purposes (to do waged or unwaged labor where capital needs it), but it also includes elements of autonomous proletarian mobility to escape misery, exploitation, and patriarchy in the areas of origin. In China, it has triggered ongoing field battles across the social relations of genders, generations, and classes who fight for more social freedom and control over their own lives.4 Most social struggles China has seen in the past two decades have centered around labor issues, corruption, land-grabbing, or environmental issues, and they have been led by urban and migrant workers, peasants, and even the 'middle classes'. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the old working class staged large struggles against lay-offs and the deterioration of conditions. However, it could only delay the process, not prevent it. In the same period, peasants fought against corrupt state and party officials, land theft, and high taxation, thereby forcing the state to lower taxation, but many of the problems in the countryside have remained.

The struggles of the new migrant workers demanding improvements increased throughout the 2000s and culminated in 2010.5 These were described as "class struggle without class organization"6 because they are class-based, but organized autonomously, i.e. without any institutionalized labor organizations. The unrest includes illegal forms such as wildcat strikes by industrial workers in medium- or large-scale workplaces, massive riots involving (waged and unwaged) migrant proletarians, demonstrations, sit-ins, and road-blockages, as well as various every-day forms of resistance in the workplace such as go-slows, absenteeism, or sabotage.7 Recently, larger workers' struggles clustered in the main new industrial centers along China's east coast (Pearl River delta, Yangtze delta, and Beijing/Tianjin), but also followed the paths of industrial relocation to new inland zones like Chongqing, Zhengzhou and Chengdu.

5 | changing patterns

With the increase in the number of struggles, their content, patterns, and organizational forms changed. In the first half of the 2000s most of them were about the defense of basic standards or against rights violations, and they were based on kinship forms of social organization. These struggles were usually restricted to one company alone (one village, one neighborhood etc.) and this limitation has been called "cellular activism".8 In the second half of the 2000s more struggles involved offensive demands for improvements, used social organization beyond kinship, and proved contagious, with copycats, domino-strikes, higher participation, forms of bottom-up democracy and the coordination by a growing number of experienced militant workers and activist networks.9 Workplaces as well as dormitories and migrant workers villages outside factory zones and construction sites became sites of social organizing for these struggles. Skilled workers, foremen and forewomen play an important role in many struggles by using their abilities and their position to organize protests. In certain cases, so-called 'citizen' lawyers and journalists, often (former) migrant workers, acquire legal and other skills through supporting workers in their struggles against companies and help spread information and experiences.10

6 | new generations

Workers today are more determined, confident and competent to organize protests and strikes. This is connected to the succession of different social generations of migrant workers. The first generation migrated to the urban zones in the 1980s and 1990s, had no experience with industrial labor and urban life, and planned to go back to the village. It only organized isolated incidents of labor unrest. The second generation, migrating in the late 1990s and 2000s, already knew about others' experiences in the city. It has not learned to farm, wants to stay in the cities, and is able to use the internet and mobile phones for their social organizing. As in other cases of industrialization and migration around the globe, it was this second generation that started to organize protests and strikes.11 We are now seeing a third generation that does not want to do industrial work anymore but get a white-collar job. They dream of having their own business, being able to buy a car and electronic gadgets, have time for the family and leisure. Few of them make it, and most are left with low-wage work in factories, on construction sites, in shops, restaurants, as domestic helpers or security guards. These experiences lead to disillusion, discontent, and anger. Today, many migrant workers from the second and third generation see social mobilizations, including strikes, as legitimate forms of resistance. The knowledge about organizing protests has been circulating in their proletarian milieus, spread by new groups of worker militants and activists. That does not mean all of them overcome their social fragmentation and engage in collective struggles – but more do than before.

7 | state and capital strategies

The new struggles represent a threat both to the CCP regime and the global division of labor. The cheap-labor-model as the engine of the Chinese boom and the backbone of global production provided cheap consumer products for other world regions and enabled core states to go ahead with austerity programs and wage cuts. Now that might come to an end. The main strategy of the state and capital against the specter of working class struggles has been a 'spatial fix' to escape the struggles, i.e. the relocation of factories to the Chinese hinterland (or countries like Vietnam). This strategy has only been partially successful since there has been an increase in labor struggles in these new industrial centers in past years. The state has also launched a multiple attack on the workers to weaken their struggles through (1) upholding the internal division of workers through migration laws and a gendered division of the labor market; (2) repression by state agencies including the arrest of so-called ringleaders and police attacks on protesters. At the same time, the state tries to defuse social tensions by (3) directly intervening into potentially destabilizing conflicts through various state agencies, namely the local government and its labor bureau, using tactics from intimidation and arrests to promises and cash payments; and by (4) channeling worker grievances through labor legislation and workplace mediation, i.e. ritualized paths for workers' complaints and demands that function to individualize conflicts and weaken the subjects behind them.

8 | general union role

All these forms play a role in containing workers' struggles but have not prevented the recent uprisings such as the 2010 strike wave in the auto industry. Faced with more protests, the state wants to establish further safety valves to release social pressure. One focus is on the unions as mediating forces (during and outside of collective bargaining) that can help company managements and the state to control workers' discontent. Unions cannot be understood just as a strategy 'from above' nor just as an organization 'from below'. Historically, they are based on workers' discontent and workers' willingness to express it. Unions try to represent the power of workers and use their ability to stop production or refuse work in negotiations in trying to get a good deal: higher wages, job security etc. They function as mediating bodies between capital and the workers – within the capitalist framework and not beyond – and therefore need the willingness of both to comply with reached agreements. To maintain their acceptance by capital, they have to prove their ability to control any unwanted independent workers' activity; in order to keep the trust of the workers they have to show their openness to the workers' problems and produce some success in the collective bargaining process. However, as long as workers are weak, capital might think representation and unions are not necessary and too expensive; but when they are strong and workers' struggles hamper production and threaten social peace, managements often ask for workers' representation on the shop-floor or for officially recognized unions.12

9 | defunct unions open space

Independent worker organizations are repressed in China, and the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is closely linked to the ruling CCP and opposes labor militancy. Due to their complicity with state and capital, the ACFTU unions are not accepted by workers as their representative bodies, and cannot effectively intervene and mediate during workers' struggles. Therefore, workers have a certain space to organize and struggle autonomously. The struggles have led to concessions such as improved working conditions and wages and they have widened the space for social activity against the repressive state to an extent where the CCP sees it as a 'threat to social stability' (meaning its own rule).

To undermine the autonomous forms of worker organizing, the CCP needs effective state-controlled union structures, so it started to allow slight reforms of the ACFTU like experiments with collective bargaining and more worker participation at the company union level – as was the case in both of the most prominent struggles of the past few years: in 2010 after the strike at the Honda plant in Foshan, and in 2013 after a range of struggles in various factories at Foxconn plants.

However, the state faces a dilemma because there is a possibility that a more tolerant government stance towards any kind of worker organizing will encourage more collective protests and lead to more coordination and more demands for political change, and it might be difficult for the government to stop such a process. Therefore, it is doubtful for the time being whether the state will go as far as to legalize (union-led) strikes.

10 | the leftist grand narrative

The strategies against workers' struggles are designed by state agencies and capital, but when it comes to the integration and challenging of struggles they often rely on the collaboration of 'left-wing' forces from within and outside the working class.

In China, some labor activists, NGO-officials, and academics advocate (1) the establishment of 'independent' unions, or (2) the reform of the ACFTU so it can fulfill the function as a workers' representation body.13 Ironically, both proposals are promoted by otherwise opposite forces: groups who want to pacify the struggles, some even in the name of the CCP's 'harmonious society', and groups who want to escalate the struggles – but misinterpret the unions as organizations that strengthen workers' power.

Why does the latter group make that mistake? In the past 150 years, capitalism as a social relation has proved very flexible in adapting to and integrating social conflicts, thereby stabilizing the system and preventing fundamental change. It has frequently managed to integrate leftist forces who tied working class mobilizations to bourgeois forms of governance and the capitalist ideology of progress and modernity. These forces often follow the leftist grand narrative that proclaims the necessity of bourgeois revolution preceding proletarian revolution, the establishment of 'class organizations' as unions (for the 'economic struggle') and workers' parties (for the 'political struggle'), the taking over of state power, and the establishment of a 'workers' state' in a transitional phase.

This narrative was based on a particular class composition especially in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century, which shaped both main leftist doctrines, Social Democracy and Marxism-Leninism (as different as they otherwise might be). In essence, it served as an ideology of capitalist development through (Taylorist) industrialization, proletarianization, and more or less 'democratic' or authoritarian rule.14 Today, after the demise of 20th century socialism based on a bureaucratic class system and political repression as well as the social-democratic participation in western-democratic capitalist rule, both may seem obsolete as useful political frameworks of social change, but they are very much alive as political strategies among today's leftists and their lobby groups.

In China, the leftist grand narrative or variations of it are promoted not just by the 'left' minority within the CCP that wants a revitalization of the Maoist workers' state, but also parts of the oppositional 'left' that supports workers' mobilizations and strikes, i.e. certain labor NGOs, (neo) Maoist groups, left-wing academics etc.

11 | practical critique in struggles

Many rebellions and movements since the 1960s have expressed a practical critique of the leftist grand narrative, of 'really existing socialism' and Social Democracy. They have promoted self-organized forms of collectivity and self-empowerment against the incapacitation by unions or party officials and have supported egalitarian initiatives against the separation of the workers along the lines of gender, 'race', or skill. Furthermore, they have rejected the fixation on state power as well as 'leftist' nationalism and have favored a global perspective of social change.

These are vivid elements of many struggles, most recently during the movements of assemblies in city squares in Spain and Greece as well as the Occupy movement. However, these elements have not prevented the renewed recuperation of struggles and the stabilization of this exploitative system. For instance, despite massive working class mobilizations, the uprisings in Greece were repeatedly channeled into formal organizations and 'democratic' elections.

Activists played a role in these failures by promoting reformist tactics and upholding the fetishism of big formal organizations of representation, despite the fact that there is no historical evidence to support the idea that formal labor organizations are a precondition for effective labor resistance. Unions or workers' parties were usually established after periods of militancy. They embody the channeling of conflicts into organizations, which often leads to a loss of practical solidarity, not its' strengthening. Conflicts are separated from those immediately affected and involved, are taken away from the workplaces and off the streets, and 'solved' on negotiation tables and through ballot boxes.15

However, a critique of the repression or channeling of struggles through capitalist 'fixes' or their weakening by leftist strategies is not sufficient. Struggles would not necessarily lead to revolution if there was no 'leftist' intervention. State repression and state strategies to fragment and channel movements are having an effect, and, surely, internal weaknesses of movements play a role, namely the contradiction of the within/beyond-problem: fighting for improvements of social conditions within the capitalist framework, i.e. using unions and collective bargaining or similar forms for negotiating with the class enemy vs. fighting for the abolition of capitalism that continuously changes and re-produces the conditions for exploitation and repression. As long as capitalism exists, elements of both will play a role in the struggles. Whether these lead to a revolutionary situation depends largely on the power of the rebellious subjects and their understanding of this power.

Therefore, any suitable form of workers' organizing hinges on the ability of workers to organize in a way that lets them empower themselves against capital, develop a perspective beyond capitalist exploitation, and resist forms of mediation and reintegration into capitalist development.

12 | workers' power

When analyzing the chances for fundamental social change in China we need an assessment of the workplace and the organizational power16 of different proletarian groups and an inquiry into the dispositions and actions of workers in concrete struggles that constitute the basis for the re-composition of a working class movement. This can only be sketched here:

The workplace power (the ability to fight for one's interest in the workplace through stoppages etc.) of sections of the working class in China has increased with the development of industrial clusters, the integration of Chinese workplaces in the global production chain, and the reorganization of work and just-in-time production. The strike wave in 2010 was largely concentrated in enterprises with these specific conditions. Other sections have far less workplace power due to individualization, repression and control, e.g. domestic workers. This reflects the fragmented technical composition of the working class in China and the various production regimes brought into place to separate workers, and which is currently an important obstruction for a generalization of working class struggles. The organizational power has increased in so far as many workers have learned how to organize resistance and struggles (see above), but is still limited due to government repression and weakened by government tactics of mediation.

13 | inquiries for change

Inquiries into the dispositions and actions of workers in concrete struggles can show the political re-composition of a working class movement but they need to go beyond the mere analysis of the political, economic and ideological warfare the state and capital wage on the working classes and the reaction of the workers against it.

Migrant workers' struggles in particular still have a somewhat temporary character in China because of the fluidity of employment and the mobility of the workers' themselves. There are also few struggles uniting urban workers, migrant workers, peasants and students. The growing number of protests has undermined the legitimacy of the CCP state, but many workers still see the central state as the only institution that can enforce improved living or working conditions when capitalists break the law and treat them badly. The social movements have neither managed to bring together a large proportion of proletarian subjects to successfully and irreversibly undermine the exploitative and repressive structures, nor were they able to produce an open discourse about working class power and perspectives beyond capitalism.

However, we see an empowerment of workers in China through the struggles and the development of class-based interests, aspirations, and actions. This development has a direction (more struggles, more coordination, more power), but the future is, of course, uncertain. The struggles could (1) signify a temporary change of the balance of power within the class struggle that will reverse in times of crisis and renewed repression, (2) be a sign of rising working class power within a perpetuated capitalist framework and an ongoing reformist adaption of the political structures, and (3) be the harbingers for a social revolution that might already be going on and brush away the exploitative capitalist structures in China (and elsewhere).

14 | concluding questions

Facing the crises of capitalism and the possibilities for social change globally, what kind of impulses will come from China? After its long term economic boom, massive social changes, the 'delayed' economic crisis and the continuation of authoritarian rule by the CCP and its 'harmonious society', China might become a new capitalist core and hegemonic power. The struggles of the new working class have disrupted capital accumulation and made China the epicenter of global labor unrest, but so far capital and state have successfully managed the pressure and continued their policies of fragmentation, repression and diversion. The economic and political system is still functioning, the ruling powers are still in their seats.

Capital and the state have successfully isolated and destroyed the old working class, and the question now is whether the new migrant working class will be able to further expand the spaces of struggle and enforce not just economic but political change. Migration and struggles have led to increasing wages and improved living conditions, but the overall development has produced a growing income gap, the deepening of a rural-urban friction, the continuing discrimination of migrants, poverty, and processes of commodification (e.g. of education and health care) with the result of more suffering and hardships.

Capitalist crisis and proletarian struggles as interconnected processes can lead to the de-legitimization of the crisis-ridden capitalist order as well as the state and the instability of the current capitalist system – in China and around the globe. The effects of crisis and struggles can cause people to question capitalist, racist and gendered power relations and look for new forms of sociality. Whether China and its workers' struggles can serve as a laboratory of such social change beyond the traps of social partnership depends (1) on the spaces for social mobilization created during the clash between state/capital and the working classes, (2) on the success of the leftist political factions that try to push for representation and institutionalization of social struggles and (3) on the dynamics of capitalist crisis and social struggles worldwide.

We need a discussion on the weaknesses of mediating class organizations and their role in stabilizing capitalist relations of exploitation. The limits of the 'class struggle without class organization' – i.e. the current social struggles and their organizational forms in China – are obvious, but the absence or disfunction of 'left-wing' institutional representations in China has the advantage of giving more space for social attempts of self-empowerment, which have regularly been suffocated in similar historical contexts by leftist mediators. In other words, the consolidation of workers' power, including the defense and expansion of already won terrain, is, indeed, only possible through effective forms of workers' organizing. However, avoiding the dead-end street of the leftist narrative gives more way for forms of organizing beyond the fetish of representation.

Originally posted: April 2013 at Gongchao

  • 1. Of course, all these states have had old working classes without secure labor contracts, too, especially consisting of women and migrants.
  • 2. According to Alain Bertho in the documentary film "Les Raisons de la Colère", Arte, France, 2010:, there were more uprisings in 2009 (540) than 1968. For 2010 he counted 1250 uprisings:,5008
  • 3. For a more detailed account see: Pun Ngai, Lu Huilin (2010): Unfinished Proletarianization: Self, Anger, and Class Action among the Second Generation of Peasant-Workers in Present-Day China. Modern China, September 2010 36: 493-519.
  • 4. This includes struggles about the ideological foundations of the Chinese society, e.g. the Confucian patriarchal regime.
  • 5. Recent examples in: Au Loongyu/Bai Ruixue (2012): New Signs of Hope. Resistance in China Today. China Labour Net See also: Butollo, Florian/Tobias ten Brink (2012): Challenging the Automization of Discontent, Critical Asian Studies, 44:3, 419-440 and China Labour Bulletin (2012): A Decade of Change. The Workers' Movement in China 2000-2010
  • 6. Chan, Chris King-Chi (2010): The Challenge of Labour in China. Strikes and the changing labour regime in global factories. London/New York.
  • 7. For the parallel occurrence of strikes and riots by different worker subjects throughout capitalist history see Mason, Paul (2007). Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. London. For examples of massive riots in 2011 in China see the descriptions on Guxiang (Chaozhou) and Zengcheng (Guangzhou) in Buttolo/ten Brink (see above).
  • 8. See Lee, Ching Kwan (2007): Against the Law. Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Berkeley.
  • 9. Elements of this could, for instance, be seen in the strike-wave in the car industry in the summer of 2010 and the various taxi driver strike actions since 2008. This describes a tendency and does not count for all struggles in all regions. For a similar assessment see Friedman, Eli (2012): China in Revolt. Jacobin, Double Issue 7/8,, and Buttolo/ten Brink, China Labour Bulletin, and Au/Bai (see above).
  • 10. See for instance Wang Kan (2011): Collective Awakening and Action of Chinese Workers: The 2010 Auto Workers' Strike and its Effects. Sozial.Geschichte Online 6, S. 9–27,
  • 11. See Silver, Beverly (2003): Forces of Labor. Workers' Movements and Globalization since 1870. Cambridge.
  • 12. This pattern can frequently be seen in China, where managements often "ask" striking workers to elect representatives for negotiations – also hoping that the representatives can be bribed, threatened, and dismissed after the conflict is solved.
  • 13. One prominent advocate of the latter is the China Labour Bulletin (, otherwise a source of information on the conditions of exploitation and workers' struggles.
  • 14. A detailed critique of the leftist grand narrative has to include a thorough analysis of the artificial dichotomies used in this ideology – society/state, economic struggle/political struggle, unions/parties –, its attempts to cure capitalist errors and irrationalities through a planned economy of capital accumulation, and a critique of the distorted picture of a powerful capitalist class exploiting the workers on one hand and the state/parties/unions as necessary institutions to defend workers' "rights" on the other – neglecting or ignoring the essence of the working-class as part of the capital relation and its power to destroy this relation.
  • 15. See Piven, Francis F./Richard Cloward (1977): Poor People's Movements – Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York
  • 16. See Silver (see above). Silver's third form of power, marketplace power (the ability to sell the own labor power on the market for a good price), plays a less important role for the development of power as a class. In China, it has increased with the labor shortage in the industrial zones and the new job offers following the relocation of industries to inland locations, but it is still fairly low in underdeveloped areas and for unskilled workers in low-wage consumer industries. The separation of the labor market through the hukou-laws and -discrimination is still undermining the marketplace power of many workers.