Review of the documentary “We the Workers” (2017), directed by Wenhai Huang.
The 1970s saw the arrival of a structural crisis of profitability which shook the world. In response, the post-war article of faith that governments should support the “commanding heights” of the economy, however unprofitable those basic industries were, was abandoned. The solution was to “free up capital” via abandoning financial laws put in place to save the world from another Wall Street Crash. At the same time key industries were restructured and privatised. Thatcher and Reagan may have initiated this new tendency to financialisation, but it developed even more rapidly under Blair and Clinton.
Motivated by the need to compete on the capitalist world-market, even the various “people’s republics” had to adapt. In China, after 1978, state-owned enterprises were reformed, the economy was opened up to outside investment, and special economic zones (SEZ) were set up, taking advantage of the vast human and natural resources on offer. This was to have enormous consequences. Over the next decades, the rural population shrank while GDP skyrocketed. China experienced an unprecedented rate of capitalist development and became the second-largest economy in the world as well as a serious imperialist player. We looked at this transformation previously and the effect it’s had on class struggles in China.1
Mainstream commentators variously denounce China for being the “world’s sweatshop” or praise it for “lifting” 850 million people out of poverty. As we wrote recently, this is “partly true, but only because millions of workers, often female, have moved to cities where they earn an income that is somehow statistically detectable and which, although low, is above the absolute poverty threshold set by the World Bank. So unlike before, they are no longer classified as very poor peasants or self-employed workers in the so-called informal sector.”2 Despite this, many have fallen under the spell of this “Chinese economic miracle”, including leftists. Bourgeois economists are still thankful for China’s role as a shock absorber of the 2007/8 financial crash. But Chinese growth was slowing down even before the pandemic hit, leading to widespread concerns about what this could mean for the global economy. Now a new documentary examines the other side of this “miracle” – the sacrifices made by hundreds of millions of workers.
“We the Workers” was shot by Wenhai Huang, mainly in the Guangdong province, over six years (2009–2015, a period of heightened class struggles in China). Originally released in 2017, but only screened to a limited audience, in 2020 it finally became available online.3 It’s a three hour documentary, with no narration, which follows the staff members of various worker centres and lawyers as they try to defend human rights, encourage collective bargaining and provide support to worker activists. These worker centres are NGOs which carry out the functions normally associated with trade unions in the West. In China however, the main legal trade union, ACFTU, is a state controlled body which, as the documentary shows, not only prevents workers from speaking out but also has the power to fire them. These worker centres are a nuisance for the government, and in fact many of the characters in the documentary were arrested in the 2016 crackdown on NGOs.
Despite the title, the working class is unfortunately not the subject but the object of this documentary. The vast majority of the screen time is devoted to the aforementioned staff members of the worker centres. These are undoubtedly brave individuals, who face harassment from the police and state security, are spied on and sometimes physically attacked. Some of them are themselves former rural migrant workers (who make up more than one-third of the working population in China) and haven’t seen their families in years. Workers mainly seek the support of worker centres where existing laws have been broken, e.g. over unpaid wages or health and safety violations. The worker centres help workers address their grievances to management, bosses or, if necessary, higher authorities like the local government labour bureaus and labour inspectorates. The staff members of the worker centres don’t hide their role:
"We’re there to make things more rational … to keep workers from taking to the streets."
While they promote working class unity, and support those on strike, the advice they provide is mainly of legalistic nature. Where they express any political perspectives, the worker centres see themselves as part of a “democratic and constitutional movement for the well-being of Chinese workers”. They are part of a network which works with sympathetic lawyers and worker activists who become organisers in their workplaces. They coordinate and spread the news of struggles through microblogging websites like Weibo and messaging apps like WeChat. But essentially struggle consultants is what they are, they reproduce the division of labour between themselves as “service-providers” and workers as “service-users”, and we see the contradictions of this in the documentary: they become frustrated when workers don’t respond to their appeals or when workers give up on a struggle which takes too much out of them. A particularly jarring example is Duan Yi, a lawyer with what looks like a golden watch, who obviously sees himself as the saviour of the working class. While drunk he proclaims out of paternalistic concern that… women should stay out of strikes. In another scene, in which a worker centre staff member distributes labour law handbooks outside a factory, he’s challenged by a worker speaking out of experience:
"What good is the law? … laws are useless in China … social insurance, housing funds, are all bullshit, my boss forgets about it after a glass of wine!"
Towards the end of the documentary we see a glimmer of hope. Mainly women workers at the Lide shoe factory, after eight months and three separate strikes, actually win their struggle for compensation in light of production being relocated to another district.4 A celebration follows, there is vague talk of the “liberation of the working class” and “workers’ power”, followed by chants of “long live the unity of workers”. There is hope this victory might inspire workers around the country. Meanwhile, Peng Jiayong, a worker centre staff member who got beaten up by the police for his agitation, begins to question some of his beliefs. He no longer feels like it’s enough to fight for “just” laws, inspired by the Lide example, he sees the need for worker’s assemblies to elect their own representatives. “No workers’ assembly, no victory!”. And yet, it all seem to be still within the framework of creating an active civil society.
For those familiar with the opposition movements of the Eastern Bloc, this civil society discourse will ring alarm bells. It did not serve to “liberate” the working class, but rather to submit them to another faction of the ruling class, one that in Poland actually came out of the trade union “Solidarność”.5 Unlike the lawyer says, no one abroad thinks the Chinese workers are “pussies”. In fact, bravery is one thing they don’t lack. What they are missing are political perspectives which corresponds to their interests. This is no surprise. Like Stalinism in the Eastern Bloc, Maoism in China has muddied the waters. It has made socialism – a stateless, classless, moneyless society without exploitation – synonymous with state ownership, the bloc of four classes, low wages, and super-exploitation. It’s up to workers in China, and everywhere else, to re-learn the lessons of past struggles of our class and reclaim the liberatory content of what socialism used to mean.
If you don’t mind the length, the pacing, and the lack of any context6 , then “We the Workers” is certainly an interesting watch. Among the smog filled industrial sites, the karaoke nights out, the cities which look like they are always under construction, the shared housing complexes, we get a rare look at some of the workers who risk everything to fight for their class. We see how those all too familiar capitalist features – wages, rents, bosses, unions and the police – make the lives of workers in China miserable. We would recommend it to those cheerleaders of “market socialism with Chinese characteristics” who still claim to be on the side of the working class.