The role of China in the imperialist pecking order has been covered many times on our website (leftcom.org). Here we deal with China’s evolution from a largely agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse which has also created the world’s largest working class – and what comes with that is, of course, simmering class conflict.
While data is naturally incomplete, last year saw some 1,700 documented workers’ actions, including strikes, protests, blockades, and sit-ins, in most cases organised outside of the trade unions. On the surface, compared with the relative social peace in the UK despite decades of austerity, these statistics seem impressive. But to understand the full picture of the class forces at play in the state capitalist empire, we need to look at recent events in the wider context.
Birth of the People’s Republic of China
The great battles of the Chinese proletariat between 1925-7 were the last gasp of the international revolutionary wave that followed the October Revolution in the Russian Empire.1 At the time China was a young republic torn apart by British and Japanese imperialism as well as rival warlord cliques that formed in the fallout of the collapse of the Qing dynasty. In 1921 the Communist Party of China (CPC) was born in Shanghai around the intellectuals Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao. Ideologically it was a confused amalgamation of groups coming out of the anarchist and nationalist milieu, those who moved to the left following the failure of the mass demonstrations of 1919 against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, known as the May Fourth Movement. Initially composed of only 50 members, the early communists organised study groups, translated the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and made contact with the Communist International. However, rather than dissuade their nationalist illusions and encourage organisational independence, the Comintern instead ordered their Chinese comrades to turn to the Kuomintang (KMT) – a republican nationalist party which sought to create a united China and put an end to the era of warlordism. It was another indication of the degeneration of the Comintern which adopted the policy that workers’ organisations in the capitalist periphery should put themselves at the disposal of national bourgeois forces, since bourgeois revolutions were still deemed to be “progressive” in these parts of the world.2 In 1922, the CPC and the KMT formed an alliance, and a year later the Comintern was providing direct help and support to the KMT in the name of anti-imperialism. In 1924, again under the orders of the Comintern, CPC members officially joined the KMT in a United Front and set up a joint National Revolutionary Army, a move supported by the then young Mao Tse-Tung, a student of peasant origin (who soon began to rise within the party hierarchy and argue, against Duxiu, that the primary revolutionary subject in China were peasants, not workers). This alliance was to have tragic consequences.
In June 1925 a general strike broke out in Canton and Hong Kong, following the killing of Shanghai strikers by British soldiers. Workers formed their own strike committees and workers’ militias. Although CPC militants were active in the movement they had to tread carefully – the KMT was, after all, the ruling party in Canton, and had the backing of the Soviet Union! The strike collapsed in the spring of 1926 under the pretence of national unity, following a coup by Chiang Kai-shek, a KMT military leader. With the strike over, the KMT and the National Revolutionary Army began their Northern Expedition to unite China under its rule. Tensions between the KMT and the CPC were approaching a critical point, leading to an internal power struggle within the KMT. As the troops of the National Revolutionary Army approached Shanghai, the working class there saw its opportunity to strike against the warlord forces still in control of the city. When the KMT arrived however, the workers did not put down their weapons. An uneasy period of dual power ensued, in which the Comintern actually refused to back the workers in fear of alienating the KMT. Finally, Chiang ordered a violent purge of the city. Thousands of workers and communists were murdered in cold blood by their former “allies”. Expulsions of communists began in other cities too. The Comintern and the CPC, recognising how outmanoeuvred they were, launched uprisings against the KMT in parts of China, but these were likewise mercilessly crushed with major losses for the Chinese proletariat. By the end of it, the CPC lost up to 25,000 of its members, its proletarian base, and had to reorganise. A Politburo was set up, and in 1928, under Mao, the CPC created its own Red Army out of ex-KMT military units. The class struggle which paved the way for the defeat of the warlord forces met a bloody end, and gave way to the Chinese Civil War between two armed gangs, the KMT and the CPC, in which millions more perished. However, China was just one piece in the puzzle. Imperialist tensions were now rising worldwide, and in 1931 Japan saw the chaos in China as an opportunity to invade Manchuria. The Japanese threat became the main preoccupation of both the CPC and the KMT.
In the course of the Long March (a military retreat of the CPC during the Civil War), Mao rose to become not only the military leader but also, through manoeuvres and purges, the ideological leader of the CPC. He proclaimed the need for a “Chinese people’s revolution” which would go through two stages. The first stage, the “new-democratic revolution”, would put an end to the Civil War, destroy the vestiges of feudalism and at the same time undermine world imperialism (i.e. Japan). It was to be entirely consistent with Three People’s Principles (nationalism, democracy, social welfare), devised by Sun Yat-sen, the first leader of the KMT. The second stage, the “socialist revolution”, was relegated to the future. In the “red areas” controlled by the CPC, Mao sought to “increase agricultural and industrial production, expand trade with the outside, and develop the co-operatives.”3 In effect, the CPC was guided by a loosely stitched together theory aimed at modernising China, one which combined early KMT thought with “Marxism-Leninism” (a Stalinism with Chinese characteristics one could say!). The theoretical proximity to KMT nationalism, the looming Japanese threat, and the CPC’s still limited membership (40,000 in a country of half a billion), explains why in 1937, despite the tragic failure of the First United Front, the KMT and the CPC united again in the Second United Front – and once again, the two parties vying for state power merged their military forces. The Chinese Civil War was suspended, and gave way to the Second Sino-Japanese War. In 1940 Mao would write:
“Stalin has said that ‘in essence, the national question is a peasant question’. This means that the Chinese revolution is essentially a peasant revolution and that the resistance to Japan now going on is essentially peasant resistance. Essentially, the politics of New Democracy means giving the peasants their rights. The new and genuine Three People’s Principles are essentially the principles of a peasant revolution.”4
By 1941 the Second United Front had, predictably, collapsed and the conflict between the KMT and the CPC was reignited. The USA, looking for allies in its war against Japan, sent observers to China and was impressed with the fighting and organisational capacity of the CPC (in comparison to the widespread corruption in the KMT zones). War with Japan concluded in 1945, but the Civil War now resumed, despite attempted KMT-CPC peace negotiations. Mao rebranded his now million strong military units as the People’s Liberation Army, while Chiang was invited to the UN Security Council as the recognised leader of China, in the hope that the country would support the anti-USSR bloc (despite the USSR helping the KMT to get off the ground in the first place!). The CPC, with the USSR at its side, was ruthless in its attempt to drive out the KMT from China, and did not shy away from exacting atrocities on civilian populations (e.g. during the Siege of Changchun). By 1949, with the CPC in control of mainland China, the KMT was forced to retreat to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on 21 September 1949. And Mao, as the leader of the CPC and the People’s Liberation Army, would be the leader of the “new China” until his death in 1976.
State Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
The civil war and the war with Japan claimed the lives of tens of millions, but in the end it established the CPC as the faction better prepared to run the Chinese state with all that it entailed. The birth of the People’s Republic of China was not the result of a successful working class revolutionary movement, as that movement was drowned in blood in 1927, but a military campaign, carried out within the orbit of imperialism over more than 20 years. In official mythology, the People’s Republic of China was established by a “people’s war”, and founded upon the “bloc of four classes” (workers, peasants, petty-bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie) – it was a New Democracy, rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat. Mao Tse-Tung Thought became the official state ideology, the state took over the task of reconstruction of the war torn economy, and control was upheld through regular state directed purges and mass mobilisations of the population.
Mao’s governing style was developed from his experience of running the “red areas” in the previous years (particularly Yan’an) and the input of Soviet advisors. The CPC grew to some 4,5 million members by 1949. By 1952 the land reform destroyed the feudal landlords as a class, and created a mass of petty bourgeois individual peasants. With this vestige of feudalism gone, capitalist reconstruction could proceed. Ever since war with Japan ended, the class struggle in the cities began to re-emerge out of the underground – but, unlike in the countryside, where the CPC had an interest in carrying out reforms and encouraging peasant expropriations, the priority in the cities was the revival of production wrecked by war. To this end, independent workers’ organisations were banned, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) became the officially sanctioned state trade union and, together with bodies like the Labour-Capital Consultative Conferences, the party tried to resolve conflicts between workers and employers through negotiation and the depoliticisation of working class demands. Only once the land question was resolved, and the “new-democratic revolution” was complete, could the so called “socialist revolution” proceed.
In 1952 the process of turning private enterprises into private-public enterprises was accelerated (following the Five-Anti Campaign), and the nationalisation of industry was announced in 1955. By the late 1950s the majority of the growing urban population was organised according to the danwei system – work-units through which the party line was disseminated, which distributed resources and provided services, and which strictly regimented the work-life balance towards productivity (Mao was a dedicated follower of the capitalist diktat: “raise labour productivity, reduce costs of production”!). The hukou system of registration, intended to strictly control internal migration between rural and urban areas, was also introduced in 1958.
The death of Stalin aggravated the already uneasy alliance with its imperialist godfather, the USSR. De-Stalinisation was decried in China as “revisionism” – the USSR had by that point become a world superpower with its own sphere of influence on the capitalist world market, and so could afford to turn away from some of the brutal methods of state capitalist accumulation in order to ensure social peace. Mao was yet to fully venture on his campaign of mass industrialisation and collectivisation. What Stalin accomplished in the 1930s and 1940s, Mao reproduced in the 1950s and 1960s. However, while the foundations were laid by Mao (the party-state, land reform, danwei and hukou system, electrification, industrial infrastructure, literacy), the transformation from a rural society to an industrial giant was only beginning. The China that emerged in the 1970s, due to the setbacks of the Sino-Soviet split (after which China was isolated on the international stage), the Great Leap Forward (which failed to increase agricultural production and contributed to a massive famine), and the Cultural Revolution (which briefly stirred up forces beyond the party’s control), necessitated a change in direction. Rapprochement with the United States (1971-2), de-collectivisation, and the growth of private enterprise began even before the death of Mao, but accelerated under Deng Xiaoping. In 1978 China had its 1956 and traditional Maoism was deemed unfit for purpose. The CPC retained its leading role in the state, but
“from the Chinese road to socialism one suddenly went over to market socialism, that is, from one mystification to another, but with significant changes in the political economy and, above all, in relations with the rest of the world. The ‘open door’policy, inaugurated by Deng, had the objective of encouraging international economic relations, ideologically overcoming the Maoist conception of self-sufficiency and concerns about internal interference by international investors. Such a policy was concretely manifested by the opening of China to external commerce, to direct external investment and to international loans. Favouring and encouraging the opening to the outside world was the creation of the experimental zones for the free market, the so-called special economic zones (SEZ’s), within which external investments enjoy particular protection. The creation of the SEZ’s occurred in the South of the country, in particular in Guangdong and Fujian provinces.”5
Essentially, what occured in the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, China began to implement earlier and more gradually. Its opening up to the West was even observable on the imperialist front, as in 1978 China militarily intervened in Cambodia, and a year later in Vietnam – in both cases against the Eastern Bloc. Despite official mythology however, independent class struggle within the People’s Republic of China did not disappear.
Workers Confront the New Democracy
Pre-1978 class struggle in the People’s Republic of China took a particular form. Often Mao would intentionally stir up discontent among Chinese workers or peasants in order to release social tensions, and preempt more serious outbursts. These state orchestrated mobilisations, which gave workers and peasants the illusion of power through brief periods in which criticism and class war against enemies (indicated by the state) was tolerated, essentially functioned as a safety valve for the state and ensured class struggle remained within bounds the party could control. It did not always work as intended. Despite the 1950s being a period of relative social peace in comparison to the turbulence of previous decades, following on from the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the strike wave of 1956-7 managed to pose a challenge to the party and its trade unions. Disturbances began in Guangzhou where, in the aftermath of the 1956 uprisings in Poland and Hungary, workers used those events as a way to demand higher wages. A worker in a tobacco plant told the factory owner:
"You don’t care about workers’ livelihood. Remember the Hungarian incident? We can show you what it’s like!"6
That movement reached its peak with the Shanghai strike wave of 1957:
"Major labour disturbances (naoshi) erupted at 587 Shanghai enterprises in the spring of 1957, involving nearly 30,000 workers. More than 200 of these incidents included factory walkouts, while another 100 or so involved organized slowdowns of production. Additionally, more than 700 enterprises experienced less serious forms of labour unrest (maoyari). [...] Of the more than thirteen hundred incidents that took place during the approximately one hundred days from March to early June 1957 (the highpoint of labor unrest in Shanghai), nearly 90 percent were centered in newly formed joint-ownership enterprises."7
The transformation of private enterprises into private-public enterprises was accompanied by a reduction in real wages and the termination of certain job perks. Understandably, it caused discontent among the workers. Workplace specific demands were first raised with factory management, if that did not work, workers would then forward them to the local authority, if they received no response, they would organise mass meetings – from there the action could escalate to strikes, slowdowns, petitions or barricading in factory managers. The strikers included not only non-party people, but also party members, former guerilla fighters and even those on factory management committees. Although some union cadres sided with the workers, anger was often directed at the unions (which controlled collective welfare funds), with instances of union officials being physically assaulted. In one instance, a worker (a member of a secret society and a former union cadre under the KMT!), raised the slogan:
"We workers need only a working people’s organization [laodong renmin zuzhi], not a union [gonghui]."8
However, despite its strength, the Shanghai strike wave, like the Guangzhou strikes of the previous year, did not raise political demands and remained primarily a struggle over work-related grievances. Nevertheless it 1) raised the question of who was speaking for the working class in the New Democracy, 2) demonstrated opposition to nationalisation where it meant the worsening of working conditions, and 3) showed awareness of class struggle outside of China. It was not the only time workers took Mao’s calls to action “too far”.
In May 1966, in an effort to reclaim his authority within the party and the state following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution. Calling the masses to rebel and seize power, particularly the workers and the youth, he unleashed a movement to purge the party from within (the factions around Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping). By the end of the campaign in the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands were dead, the working class was not any closer to holding power, and working conditions had not improved. Certain episodes of the Cultural Revolution however did show workers’ self-initiative and an attempt to challenge the existing order. The initial period consisted primarily of students forming Red Guard paramilitary units loyal to Mao. A Cultural Revolution Group, under the control of the Politburo Standing Committee, was set up to encourage criticism and local uprisings, while trade unions and party cells were dissolved in favour of “revolutionary committees” (still under the control of party cadres). Two factions emerged within the workers’ organisations: the conservatives (baoshoupai) organised in the Scarlet Guard, and the rebels (zaofanpai) organised in the Red Guard. The former consisted of the more privileged sections of the workforce, often employed in bigger enterprises, who wanted to protect their conditions and tended to align with the existing authorities. The latter were younger, more precarious workers (contract or temporary) and apprentices, who answered Mao’s call enthusiastically.
It was not until October 1966 however that workers really took to the movement.9 This mainly consisted of setting up their own organisations, openly organising around work-related demands (many of the issues raised in 1957 had not been resolved, and there had been a wage freeze since 1963), and, as the movement grew over the next few months, overthrowing local authorities in an effort to set up enclaves on the model of the Paris Commune. This “January Revolution” did not last long. Mao wanted workers to rebel only as long as they did not 1) disrupt production and 2) question the leading role of the party. As such, by January 1967 those who disrupted production in their fight for work-related demands were accused of “counterrevolutionary economism” and condemned as “saboteurs of the Cultural Revolution”. By February 1967 the word “commune” was banned by the party, and in cities like Shanghai where the “commune” model gained popularity, the “three-in-one” model was enforced instead, which clamped down on direct democracy and ensured power remained in the hands of representatives from party cadres, the People’s Liberation Army, and (to create the illusion of democratic power) some organisations of the workers. Radical currents emerged which, despite not quite breaking free of the Maoist framework, began to pose important questions. The manifesto Whither China? produced by Hunan’s Provincial Revolutionary Alliance stated:
"Why did Comrade Mao Tse-tung, who energetically advocated the ‘commune,’ suddenly oppose the establishment of ‘Shanghai People’s Commune’ in January? That is something which the revolutionary people find it hard to understand. Chairman Mao, who foresaw the ‘commune’ as a political structure which must be realised in the first cultural revolution, suddenly put forward ‘Revolutionary committees are fine!’ [...] Since a Red capitalist class is already formed in China, the army of course cannot detach itself from this reality. Yet the January storm has not touched in any way the vital problem of all revolutions – the problem of the army. [...] The putting forward of three-in-one combination amounts to reinstatement of the bureaucrats already toppled in the January revolution. Inevitably it will be the form of political power to be usurped by the bourgeoisie, at which the Army and local bureaucrats are to play a leading role. [...] The commune of the ‘Ultra-Left faction’ will not conceal its viewpoints and intentions. We publicly declare that our object of establishing the ‘People’s Commune of China’ can be attained only by overthrowing the bourgeois dictatorship and revisionist system of the revolutionary committee with brute force. Let the new bureaucratic bourgeoisie tremble before the true socialist revolution that shakes the world! What the proletariat can lose in this revolution is only their chains, what they gain will be the whole world! The China of tomorrow will be the world of the ‘Commune.’"10
Between February and March 1967, in response to such insubordination, the more radical workers’ groups were banned, many were arrested or beaten up, and their houses raided. Workers were ordered to return to their posts, undertake self-criticism, and resume work, while temporary and contract workers who disobeyed were sent back to the countryside. Soldiers were put in factories to keep the peace. The state was more heavy handed with workers than with students. The crackdown aimed to prevent the formation of any currents that could challenge the party (which is why particularly those groups which organised across different trades and districts, or were made up of demobilised soldiers, were targeted). In the summer of 1967 the conflict between factions within the state turned to open warfare. The Cultural Revolution Group and the rebel groups sympathetic to it began to clash with the People’s Liberation Army. By that point class struggle was again subsumed into the internal political struggle of the ruling class, and the divisions within the working class between the conservatives and the rebels were exploited so that Mao, with the help of the Gang of Four (a hardline party faction, which included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing), could then re-establish national unity under Mao Tse-Tung Thought.
Towards the end of 1971 soldiers were withdrawn from the factories. In 1974-5 industrial unrest began again – there were protests in Guangzhou, and strikes in Hangzhou (put down by the People’s Liberation Army). While raising economistic demands, workers however remained mired in the factional struggles within the CPC (many supporting Deng Xiaoping against the Gang of Four). In January 1976 the death of the moderate Premier Zhou Enlai led to a period of public mourning, during which posters appeared across cities criticising the Gang of Four. It began with students in Nanjing and culminated in the Tiananmen Incident of 5 April, where hundreds of thousands of mourning workers and students were dispersed with force, while Deng was put under house arrest. The state’s response undermined the Gang of Four, and when in September 1976 Mao died, Deng was rehabilitated and began his rise to power. Censorship and repression was scaled back, official trade unions were re-established, unofficial journals and independent political posters proliferated (although based in Hong Kong, part of that wave was the Minus magazine for example which came to identify China as state capitalist11 ). The symbolic centre of this “democracy movement” was the Democracy Wall in Xidan of 1978, where people could openly voice their grievances and criticise China’s leaders by using handwritten wallposters (dazibao). Liberal and reformist messages intertwined with working class concerns:
"According to the concepts of Marxism-Leninism, the people should control the means of production. But ask yourselves, Chinese workers and peasants: Apart from the small wage which you receive each month, what do you control? What belongs to you? The answer is shameful: Others are your masters. In a socialist society, the product of labor should belong to the worker. But what do you get? Just enough so that you can continue to work! Higher salaries have not sufficed to compensate for soaring prices, and our standard of living has not improved."12
By and large however, the “democracy movement” was supportive of Deng’s reforms. In the 1970s this turn towards civil society discourse and democratisation was seen all across the Eastern Bloc, and led to sections of the dissident intelligentsia, and eventually the state, looking towards the West for solutions. It also coincided with the first calls for free and independent trade unions in China (particularly in the aftermath of the rise of Solidarność in Poland in 1980). Many Chinese workers were caught up in the illusion of the “democracy movement” (although there were still ongoing concerns over wage and welfare cuts). Deng set the stage for the arrival of Western capital and marketisation, but despite this, between 1979 and 1981 he gradually clamped down on the “democracy movement” resulting in arrests and the banning of publications and organisations (after all, the leading role of the party was still not up for debate and the spectre of Solidarność loomed high). The economic reforms brought a degree of destabilisation to the economy and began to gradually erode welfare and the danwei system, confirming working class fears. Three waves of inflation followed, one in 1985 (with an average growth of 10% in annual prices), one in 1988 (20% growth), and another one in 1993 (nearly 25% growth). The first wave of inflation triggered student protests in the cities of Hefei, Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing, but these were easily dispersed. They did however raise the profile of liberal dissidents (like Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang). The second wave of inflation, together with the death of the reformist official Hu Yaobang, set the background to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
If in previous decades the relationship between students and workers was uneasy, at Tiananmen Square it now became hostile. Students, organised in the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation, saw themselves as an ideological elite which alone held the answers to China’s problems. They opposed calls for a general strike, and tried to keep the movement under their control.13 When workers in the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation tried to join the protests they were prevented from setting up camp in the square itself and were not given access to the sound system. Students and workers ultimately had different aspirations at this point – the former wanted to speed up the liberal reforms, the latter opposed the reforms which worsened their working conditions. For a brief moment it seemed as if China might have its own Solidarność (in the form of the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation) and its own Wałęsa (in Han Dongfang). But following on from their Polish counterparts, the Chinese government declared martial law and the police and the army moved in. Hundreds were killed and injured, and workers, who staged pitched battles and set up barricades, again got the harsher end of the stick than the students.
The repressions of Tiananmen Square discouraged workers from politically resisting the market reforms of the 1990s. Instead, with the help of the official trade unions, they were mobilised to push ahead Deng’s Four Modernisations (of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defence). Strikes still occurred of course, but once again were largely confined to work-related grievances, and since the late 1990s, in the era of mass layoffs, these gave way to protests.
This brings us to modern day China. The changing composition of class forces, and China’s rise to an economic powerhouse, can be demonstrated by some statistics from the World Bank.14 The rural population has shrunk massively: in 1960 it amounted to some 84% of the population, by 1978 it dropped to 82%, but by 2015 it had plummeted to 45%. The opposite trend can be observed in regard to China’s GDP. In 1960 it amounted to $60 billion, it grew to $150 billion by 1978, and then skyrocketed to $11 trillion by 2015 (second only to the USA). The rate at which capitalist development has taken place in China is unprecedented.
Of course, as with every economic miracle, it could only take place on the backs of the working class. The benefits of the danwei system and the “iron rice bowl” (job security) have been undermined in the drive towards productivity. The Special Economic Zones, with their new age Taylorism, the 996 working hour system (work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days per week), and the restrictive hukou system, have allowed for hyper-exploitation. China became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001, which further opened it up to foreign capital. Individual achievement, rather than collective welfare, was now glorified (in Shenzhen today ads and sculptures trumpet: “Follow our party, start your business”). Job mobility has replaced job security (45% of employees now work in the service industry and there is a large gig economy thanks to online apps and services like Didi Chuxing, Meituan Dianping, Huya, Douyu and Kuaishou). In 2012 Xi Jinping became the General Secretary of the CPC, and utilised the phrase “Chinese Dream” to promote entrepreneurship and modernisation. His long term goal is for China to become the world’s number one superpower by 2049. The Belt and Road Initiative is central to this.15
Prospects for Class Struggle Under the Chinese Dream
Every once in a while stories of labour unrest in China make their way into English language news (particularly when the actions affect brands popular in the West). Over the past ten years, in the wake of the financial crisis, we could mention the following:
2010: Foxconn suicides, and the strike wave at Honda and Toyota plants 2011: strike at Hi-P International (supplier to companies such as Motorola and HP)
2012: strike at Foxconn (manufacturer of Apple products)
2013: Southern Weekly incident (strike and protests over newspaper censorship)
2014: strikes at Yue Yuan International (largest manufacturer of sport shoes, such as Nike, Crocs, Adidas, Reebok), and at Dongguan Masstop (Apple supplier)
2015: strike at Stella Shoe Co. (manufacturer of shoes, such as Prada, Nike, Adidas)
2016: strikes at Walmart
2017: strike of Meituan food delivery drivers and clashes with security guards
2018: Jasic Incident (protests following a quashed attempt to form an independent union)
These strikes have mobilised from as few as 200 workers (at four Walmart stores) to as many as 50,000 workers (at seven Yue Yuan plants), and saw the involvement of both urban and rural migrant workers. The latter, like the contract workers of the past, continue to face discrimination due to the hukou system (established urban workers get preferential treatment over newcomers when it comes to job opportunities. They enjoy more rights at work, and are less likely to be denied wages). The main grievances of these strikes have included low pay, poor working conditions, work accidents, wage arrears, lay offs, as well as disputes over bonuses, pensions and social insurance funds. Health conditions such as silicosis (caused by inhalation of airborne silica dust, common during pneumatic drilling and coal mining) remain an ongoing issue. The statistics from the China Labour Bulletin (founded by Han Dongfang) provide a fuller, but by no means complete, picture of working class activity in China over recent years.16 Guangdong (a historical working class stronghold, and now home to three of the six Special Economic Zones) has remained the top location for worker unrest. Construction (30-40%), with manufacturing a close second (20-30%), is still the top sector for unrest despite the rise of the gig economy. Since 2015 there appears to have actually been a slowdown in activity (2018 saw 1,701 recorded instances of workers’ actions, a decrease from 2,774 incidents in 2015), It is in the absence of major class confrontations that the Jasic Incident has taken the spotlight.
From May 2018 onwards, workers at a Jasic Technology plant (based in Shenzhen, Guangdong, producing welding equipment), motivated by poor working conditions, attempted to set up an independent union. In response the workers were sacked, which kicked off a solidarity campaign in July calling for their reinstatement, led by university students, elderly Maoists and former Jasic employees. The state clamped down, placing some of the protestors under detention. This aggravated the situation further, and the campaign, now calling for both the reinstatement of the workers and the release of the protestors, grew through online networks, making it to English language media. The Jasic campaign had everything to please the Western non-Stalinist left: demands for a free trade union, involvement of Marxist students, and calls for “solidarity”. This has obscured the nature of this event – the “Statement of Willingness to Join the Jasic Union” collected only 89 signatures, in a workplace of over a thousand. As repression started, only around 20 of these workers remained involved, and from then on the campaign was largely led by those outside the plant (students and leftists). This is not to detract from the fact that it was well publicised despite conditions of state censorship, but it was not a major struggle. A recent article from the journal Chuang dispels some of the illusions, and is worth quoting at length:
"In fact, the incidents at the Jasic factory in Shenzhen never involved a strike at all, and neither the workers nor the support groups ever claim that the workers were on strike. This did not stop prominent English media from misreporting it as a “strike” action… [The] claim that Jasic represents a growing trend is also a gross error, and most likely a somewhat intentional distortion of the facts to produce a narrative that unionization is the proper next step for China’s workers. [...] Indeed, there are occasionally workplace related actions that involve the union, but they are exceedingly rare. Cases of union-related demands, like reelection of union representatives for example, make up just 0.001 percent of all worker actions in China, according to the more than 10,000 incidents recorded by China Labour Bulletin between 2011 and 2018. Moreover, the most noteworthy strikes and protests that involved unionization demands were generally a sign of intervention by some sort of outside organization, like a local labor NGO, or as in the case of Jasic, but also other cases, national Maoist political networks. It is well documented that large networks of Walmart workers in China, for example, were developed with the aid of NGOs, which helped facilitate some of their actions and provided legal support for workers. [...] Taking another look at China Labour Bulletin’s statistics, there were precisely six incidents in the 2067 cases between 2018 and March of 2019 that had anything at all to do with unions, including the Jasic case, and not even all of them are demands for union elections or the like. In one case construction workers are protesting unpaid wages owed by the trade union itself."17
In other words, the Jasic Incident does not represent a growing trend in the wider class movement in China, but is rather the result of a skilful publicity campaign carried out by misguided but well-meaning elements or those who simply want to funnel class struggle down a trade unionist route. Which brings us to the four main organisational and ideological traps facing the working class of China today:
Trade unionism. The demand for independent trade unions raised during the Jasic Incident, but repeated since the 1970s by leftists, academics, NGOs and Han Dongfang (now of the China Labour Bulletin), represents a step backwards compared to the mass wildcat movements of 2010 at Honda18 and 2014 at Yue Yuan19 , self-organised primarily by word of mouth, smart-phones and internet chat rooms (in the absence of the old work-units as centres of mobilisation, workers have found new ways of reaching thousands by the use of modern technology). While most recognise that the official union ACFTU serves to nip in the bud every sign of independent worker activity, there are still illusions in the creation of these “independent trade unions”. The example of Poland in the 1980s should serve as a warning and a lesson here, of how even a most militant union of millions created during a wave of popular struggle ended up clamping down on workers’ self-organisation, and negotiating a political and economic transformation which destroyed working and living conditions.20
Factionalism. The experience of 1966 (when militant workers rallied behind Mao only to then face repression when they took the idea of “seizing power” too far), or of 1978 (when workers rallied behind Deng in the hope of reforms, only for him to open up the country to the free market and all that entails), should demonstrate that there is nothing to be gained from siding with this or that faction of the establishment. It is likely that in the future new “reformers” or “radicals” will emerge from within the cadres of the CPC, but no matter how much they will pose as being on the side of the people or the workers, their aim is to ensure struggle does not leave the control of the state, and instead is confined to internal power struggles.
Maoism. The early history of Mao and Maoism is significant as it became the dominant ideology within the People’s Republic of China and, like in feudal Europe when many revolts against the existing order expressed themselves in the language of Christianity, in China class struggle has since often been expressed in the language of Maoism. For the older generation the appeal of Maoism is not unlike that of the nostalgia for the welfare states and the post-war boom of the 1950s seen in the West, where job security and basic provisions were still granted. For the younger generation, searching for political alternatives, Maoism is seen as the antidote to the marketisation and insecurity that followed the reforms of 1978 in which they have lived their whole lives. Maoism is not Marxism however, it is the ideology of state modernisation combining KMT nationalism and Stalinism, it is taught at Chinese schools and universities, and has no emancipatory potential (revolutionary theories for ousting the ruling class are not on the curriculum!). The extent to which workers and youth break from Maoism whilst at the same time resisting Western-style democracy will determine how far they develop a revolutionary perspective.
Nationalism. The ruling class has always tried to translate working class disconent into national terms, as part of its tactic of divide and rule (current state persecution of the Uighurs, under the pretext of combating terrorism, extremism and separatism, resembles in tone the anti-Muslim bigotry in the West even if it is more vicious in content). Both state-centric nationalism based on the Stalinist model and Han-centric nationalism based on the KMT model has played the role of enforcing Chinese national unity, strengthening the state, and justifying Chinese imperialism. The working class movement in China is not purely a Chinese affair. Workers have no country and the struggle against an international system has to take place on an international scale. Like in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, when class struggles in Eastern Europe inspired Chinese workers to challenge their own state, workers today need to develop international links and learn from each others’ experiences if we want to find a way out of the capitalist crisis (efforts to translate communist texts from English into Chinese and vice versa are a start).
The way forward in China, as elsewhere, remains working class autonomy and a communist programme. The former has to be defended against those who would wish to see it dissolved (state actors, NGOs, trade unions), the latter has to be revived by the more class conscious elements of society who reflect on the lessons of the past (and ultimately unite in an internationalist political organisation). This is by no means easy, but with economic growth in China at its slowest pace in nearly three decades and crippled by debt, and the spectre of international war and climate crisis putting the lives of millions at risk, it becomes more imperative by the day. If and when the Chinese working class takes up the mantle of mass class struggle again, and realises the lessons of its own historical memory, the world’s ruling classes may well tremble again.
- 6Mark W. Frazier, The Making of the Chinese Industrial Workplace, p.198
- 7Elizabeth J. Perry, Shanghai’s Strike Wave of 1957
- 9Jackie Sheehan, Chinese Workers: A New History, p.109
- 11The forerunner of Minus corresponded with the CWO (and other communist left organisations) for some years in the 1970s and 1980s but seemed to move towards councilist positions and eventually ceased contact. libcom.org
- 12Jackie Sheehan, op.cit. p.162
- 18For more on the 2010 Honda strikes, see: mouvement-communiste.com
- 19For more on the 2014 Yue Yuan strikes, see: libcom.org