Worker Passivity in China - A Maoist Myth

2000 paper on the Chinese workers' movement put together by the China Labour Bulletin.


The following summary was prepared by the China Labour Bulletin ( as a background paper to a conference held in Hong Kong in November 2000. The conference was organised as an international forum to discuss increasing labour unrest in Mainland China and the implications for the labour movement in Hong Kong. Vital to the deliberations was a discussion on how the international labour movement might best respond to worker militancy in China and the struggle to build an independent, democratic labour movement in China. A full record of the conference is due be published by the Asia Monitor Resource Center in early 2002.

A Summary of the Chinese Labour Movement Since 1949

This document is a very brief outline of the Chinese labour movement since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949. The contents are by no means original research and draw heavily on the work of Jackie Sheehan, Anita Chan, Han Dongfang, Trini Leung the China Labour Bulletin and China Rights Forum. Apart from direct quotes, footnotes have not been used. For reasons of time and space, the Cultural Revolution has been left out. Although the period is an important chapter in the history and direction of the labour movement in China, it is simply too vast and complex a subject to do justice to here.

It is often assumed that Chinese workers, especially those working in state-owned enterprises and in possession of the much-valued urban registration certificate, have been passive and loyal government subjects enticed into submission by the so-called 'iron rice bowl'. Recent research proves this not to be the case. In fact it could be argued that the establishment of Workers' Autonomous Federations (WAF) in the 1989 Democracy Movement was the logical conclusion of at least four waves of previous confrontations between the CCP and the urban working class.

1949-1952: Clarification of the ACFTU's Role in Society

Almost immediately after the CCP came to power, the newly formed All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was plunged into a dilemma. Workers' expectations had risen during the civil war and by the time the CCP took office, its claim to being the party of the working class had pushed workers into an optimistic - and often militant - mood. Many expected not only better wages and safer working conditions to follow the CCP victory, but equally important to many workers was the prospect of taking part in enterprise management as a whole. It was only after taking power that the CCP began to roll back its commitment to industrial democracy, especially after the First Five Year Plan (1953 - 1957) was introduced and production targets and labour discipline were prioritised.

Up until the end of 1952 there was considerable unrest in Chinese industry as some workers employed the traditional pre-1949 weapons of strike and go-slow to push for improvements at work. From late 1949 until mid-1950, the ACFTU was fairly open in its support for workers demands' and as a result often found itself in conflict with the CCP. It's role as a 'transmission belt' had still not been set in stone and some union activists were keen to support working class demands. However, while the CCP launched various political campaigns aimed at bringing the interests of capital securely under state control - and therefore state accumulation - it simultaneously began to put the ACFTU firmly in its place.

Even before the aforementioned political campaigns to curtail the power of capital were over, the Party was calling on the unions to turn the struggle away from politics and to increasing production. The ACFTU quickly found itself caught between pressures from both above and below. While some 'leftist' workers called for full industrial democracy, the CCP was continually preoccupied with restoring production and labour discipline. As far as the party leadership was concerned, ACFTU chairperson Li Lisan went beyond the parameters set for trade union activity and in December 1951 he was replaced by Lai Ruoyu. In the debate on the role of trade unions, Lai took the position that the unions must operate under the leadership of the Party at all levels and that the interests of the workers could not diverge from the interests of the state.

While the ACFTU, and its predecessor, the All-China Federation of Labour had traditionally operated from a top-down perspective, the struggle over who should actually lead at the top was drawing to a close. At the ACFTU's Seventh Congress in May 1953, unions were criticised for having paid too much attention to workers' excessive demands. The ACFTU's absolute dominance by the Party was confirmed, although this certainly did not end the dilemma over the union's role that was to continually re-emerge in China's modern labour history. Even the official ACFTU newspaper, the Workers' Daily, reported that after the Seventh Congress many workers felt the unions had 'lost their guts'.

1956-1957: Workers and the Hundred Flowers Movement

'If you don't learn from Hungary you won't get anything' went the chant of striking workers in the April-May strike wave of 1957. The reference was to the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 that had a profound influence on the Chinese government who were aware of the parallels with their own country. As were numerous workers.

The roots of the 1956-1957 labour unrest were in many ways a continuation of the struggle of 1949-52. Workers had since been subject to four years of Soviet-style one-man management as well as the targets of the First Five-Year Plan. In its consolidated role as a transmitter of the government policies, the ACFTU had been instrumental in encouraging workers to meet these targets and had even backed management demands for reduced benefits and increased overtime. Piece-rates were also widespread (applying to as much as 42 percent of urban workforce) and this only fuelled discontent.

Although the 'free speech' that Mao encouraged during the 100 Flowers Movement has been seen as mainly applying to intellectuals, workers also voiced their demands, many of which had been exacerbated by the recent nationalisation programme of private enterprises. The programme had left many workers with even fewer channels to defend their interests. In a nationalised factory the enterprise was run in the interests of the state - which as we have seen, were not supposed to differ from those of the workers themselves. Thus there was apparently no need for the traditional methods of working class struggle, as in theory workers would only be striking against themselves.

Practice was very different. The mid-50s strike wave reached its peak in spring 1957. On the Guangzhou docks as much as half of the workforce came out in an undeclared strike against a new shift system that reduced net monthly pay. A number of autonomous enterprise-level trade union associations were set up by workers who called them 'Grievance Redress Societies'. These were quickly suppressed in the Anti-Rightist movement that followed the 100 Flowers Movement. Setting a precedent for future working class activists, the workers who were sent to labour camps during the Anti-Rightist clamp down were labelled 'bad elements' rather than 'rightists', a political tag reserved for intellectuals.

The unrest again resulted in a purge of the ACFTU leadership, which had responded to the unrest by trying to carve itself a more independent role. Workers had been highly critical of ACFTU cadres who were subject to the duality of roles set by the Seventh Congress in 1953. Mechanisms for industrial democracy were set up by the government in 1956 - partly as a response to the unrest and partly to head off a Chinese Hungarian Uprising. However workers largely ignored the enterprise level Staff and Workers' Congresses and even refused to vote in elections to them. The Congresses were part of an overall policy of moving away from the unpopular one-man management and to management by Committee. Yet many workers saw this as too little too late and it was the fear-ridden atmosphere of the anti-Rightist Campaign that stopped the unrest rather than any concessions to industrial democracy.

The April Fifth Incident

Although the Cultural Revolution pushed China into a period of brutality and chaos, it also had the unintended result of allowing workers and young people more room to organise and defend their own interests, as long as they stuck to the flowery - and often bizarre - language of radical Maoist rhetoric while doing so. The legacy of the period 1966-1969 was that by the 1970s, China had a considerable number of people who had direct experience of political activity, usually through Red Guard organisations. The government's solution to this dilemma - apart from sending the army into the cities to restore order in 1969 - was to send millions of university and high school youth down to the countryside. This would keep them from stirring up trouble in vital urban areas and alleviate the growing problem of unemployment. However it was not a measure that could be applied to the working class who were needed at the workbench and office.

From 1970 until 1976, tension in China's urban enterprises gradually built up. Any gains that workers had made during the 1967 strike wave were eradicated by the government's emphasis on increased production and labour discipline. The army was playing a major role in the running of enterprises and the 'Gang of Four', the government clique that had emerged victorious from the Cultural Revolution, seemed to increase their use of Maoist rhetoric regarding the 'mastery of the working class' in direct proportion to the economic misery that constituted reality for most workers - the working class had effectively endured a pay-freeze since 1963.

The complex political mood of the country was probably best marked by the big-character poster of dissident Li Yizhe that went up in Guangzhou in autumn 1974. The poster pointed out that despite the speechifying and violence of the Cultural Revolution, China remained a country of great inequality. Li pointed to the lack of material incentives for workers, the pay-freeze and the special privileges enjoyed by CCP cadres. He also made pointed reference to the lack of democracy and legality in China.

As the Gang of Four lumbered from one political campaign to another in attempts to obliterate criticism, it faced increasing labour unrest. In Hangzhou in 1975, over 30,000 PLA troops were moved in to stop a 'summer of discontent'. This was immediately followed by dissident activity in Nanjing that was to spread throughout China and culminate in the 'Tiananmen Incident of April 5', 1976.

During the Chinese Qing Ming Festival - traditionally a day to remember the dead - up to half a million ordinary citizens flocked to Tiananmen Square to lay wreaths and poems in honour of Zhou Enlai. Rightly or wrongly, Zhou was revered by China's working people for saving China from descending into civil war during the Cultural Revolution. Correctly interpreting this outpouring of collective grief as a direct criticism of themselves, the Maoist government removed the wreaths from the Square overnight, which led to violent and widespread unrest the day after, April Fifth. The resulting movement was dominated by workers and organised around the workplace. The government's crackdown was correspondingly brutal as workers voiced dissenting opinions on the widespread existence of favouritism, hypocrisy and inequality. Although the dissent was quelled relatively quickly, the end of ten years of 'fundamentalist Maoism' was now in sight. Within four weeks of Mao's death on 9 September 1976, the Gang of Four was under arrest.

The Democracy Wall Movement

The Democracy Wall Movement developed around a wall near the centre of Beijing that became the site of a myriad of wall posters and 'big character posters'. Their content discussed not only the Chinese political system, but also systems and events taking part in other parts of the world as well - especially Poland and the rise of the independent trade union Solidarity. Solidarity demonstrated to Chinese workers that they were not the only people in the world living under an authoritarian regime that had usurped the name of the working class in order to exploit it more efficiently.

In many ways the movement took up where the April Fifth Incident had been suppressed, and indeed it was the reversal of the government's official verdict on the latter that sparked the flowering of posters, speeches and magazines that constituted such an important part of the Democracy Wall. The journal editors stressed that freedom of expression was one of the chief demands of the movement and the Wall became home to all sorts artistic and literary expression. While the movement did not constitute a mass, spontaneous working class movement in the vein of April Fifth, it certainly gave workers the opportunity to express their grievances, many of which harked right back to the 1950s: wages falling behind inflation, the existence of a bureaucratic elite, lack of industrial democracy and importantly, an awareness that Deng's Four Modernisations/Open Door reform process was not turning out to be a bed of roses for the working class.

Some journals and publications went further than simply airing grievances and it is here that the influence of Solidarity was particularly striking, especially around labour issues. Some journals published translations of the Polish union's demands to the government and others put the increasing number of calls for independent trade unions in a directly political context. The journal Sailing Ship, based around the Taiyuan Iron and Steel works, appeared to be quite clear about the implications of the wave of unrest that had taken place at the works:

"They [the workers] understand that if they want to change their wretched conditions, they cannot rely on any messiah, but must begin to organise themselves, to rely on their own strength, and to elect their own representatives to speak for them, and if at any time their elected representatives do not represent them properly, they will be recalled and another election held. This sort of demand on the part of the broad popular masses is the social basis for China's democratic reform."

The Democracy Wall Movement soon went beyond the parameters set for it by Deng Xiaoping and the party reformers, with whom it had a temporary collaboration. The CCP tried to address the workers' grievances by stressing the democratic role of workers congresses in the factories and resurrecting the ACFTU, which had more or less collapsed during the Cultural Revolution. However as the posters on the Wall began to directly criticise Deng and the system itself, the CCP turned to direct suppression. Fu Yuehua led a march of peasants and unemployed youth on National Day 1979, which led to her arrest, imprisonment and subsequent disappearance. Wei Jingsheng put up a poster comparing Deng to fascist dictators past and present and paid for it with a 15-year prison sentence. By September 1980, what was left of the movement began to try and consolidate nationally with the formation of the National Federation of People's Publications. In 1981, the movement was banned and most remaining dissidents not in prison were put there.

Workers in the Democracy Movement of 1989

Yet the tone for the 1980s had been set. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in Chinese society became increasingly obvious as Deng's trickledown economic policies made their impact felt in the cities, especially after 1986 when both unemployment and inflation began to spiral out of control.

In April 1989, students began to gather in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to discuss politics and organise demonstrations to demand an end to corruption and the introduction of open government. The students had emerged from 'democracy salons' held on the university campuses. As the demonstrations and crowds on the Square gathered in size, the students organised themselves into autonomous student groups, independent of the official student union.

The activity in the Square began to attract the attention of Beijing citizens, including workers. Soon enough, some workers began to make speeches, also calling for an end to corruption and solidarity with the students. By the end of April, the Beijing Autonomous Workers' Federation (BWAF) was formed. According to founder members, the original core group was made up of mainly blue-collar workers from steel factories, the railways, and the aviation industry, as well as shop assistants and casual workers. As the influence of the Democracy Movement spread to major cities in China, similar workers' autonomous federations were established.

The BWAF initially concentrated its activity on signing up members and distributing leaflets critical of the official ACFTU. The organisers also set up a loudspeaker system and began broadcasting their opinions and demands. Both the leaflets and broadcasts proved popular with Beijingers who had come to see what was going on. While no accurate figure exists of how many people signed up to the BWAF - the membership list was burnt by an organiser when government troops moved into the Square - estimates from activists claim that between 10,000 and 20,000 names were taken. However, these same activists stress that this by no means implied that the BWAF had that many active members. While popular on the demonstrations and the Square, the BWAF failed to make inroads where it really mattered: in Beijing's offices and factories.

Internally the BWAF concentrated on capacity building such as consolidation, publicity, recruitment and development of resources and leadership skills. It also began to draft a constitution. From initial demands for an end to corruption in China, the BWAF began to broaden its scope and gradually echoes of previous labour unrest found their way into BWAF leaflets. These criticisms included the pervasive existence of cadre privilege, wide income gaps between workers and managers, a lack of workplace democracy, poor safety standards and the deterioration in living standards. Implicit in all this was a recognition that workers were losing out in the reforms. Above all was the demand for legal status and the right to organise outside the ACFTU.

The BWAF also had contacts with relatively sympathetic sections within the ACFTU. Importantly, the organisers made it clear that they meant to build the union through constitutional means and, as an organisation, neither opposed nor supported the rule of the CCP. Although the existence of the BWAF was a profoundly political fact, the BWAF itself attempted to steer clear of political posturing. Another important factor was the weak link between the students and the workers taking part in the protest. Throughout May, the BWAF tents were restricted by the students to a far corner of the Square and despite the efforts of some worker organisers, relations between the students and the workers remained cool until early June, by which time the government had already decided to act.

As the numbers of students directly participating in the Democracy Movement slowly began to dwindle, the WAFs became stronger. Links between WAFs all over China were being forged and some activists travelled to Beijing for discussions.

Correspondingly the position of the ACFTU hardened towards the WAFs and on June 2, 1989 the official Workers Daily called for the banning of the WAFs as illegal organisations. The call was perhaps premature. Two days later government troops fought their way into the Square and made straight for the BWAF tents. In the repression that followed, thousands of workers suspected of taking part in WAF organisations were rounded up and shot or sent to prison.

1990-1996 From the Ashes - Political and Economic Protest

In the early and mid 1990s, labour agitation in China was either overtly political or restricted to economic grievances. There are few examples of a merge between the two. Politically motivated attempts by intellectuals to exhort workers into forming independent labour organisations failed. At the same time, economically driven industrial actions and protests by workers, usually in or around their workplace, gradually increased. A common thread linking these two otherwise parallel strands of protest has been the organisers' attempts to establish or call for independent representation of the workers, either in the form of negotiating representatives, trade unions or political platforms. At the same time, the old contradiction between the official state rhetoric of 'wholeheartedly relying on the working class' and the actual daily experience of workers increased general discontent against the government and employers.

Private Sector Protest

The spring of 1994 marked the first wave of labour protests since 1989. According to a report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the incidence of strikes and demonstrations began to grow steadily in 1994. Dissident movements in various places have also helped to kick-start workers' demands for organising independent trade unions. An ACFTU investigation found that strikes in joint ventures were 'largely independent of the official union'. Some researchers in China have tried to account for the drive towards independent union organising in Shenzhen:

In recent years, some 'working women's' associations' and 'working men's associations' have emerged in Shenzhen. Their leaders command fairly high capabilities and respect. This potential force is very strong. If they were really left to organise on their own, they would surpass the force of the current local union body. Hence, it is no longer a question of whether we need to establish unions or not, but rather it is a question of how to set up and what kind of union should be set up. It is a question of whether the Party and government should organise their union or let them organise their own.

State Sector Militancy

Behind the official tendency towards selective reporting of labour problems, there may well have been relative industrial peace in the foreign-invested or export-processing sectors, compared to other sectors. For example, out of the total number of 7,892 incidents of labour disputes handled by Guangdong province during the first couple of years of the nineties, only 1,421 took place in non-state-owned enterprises. This ratio of one in seven of labour disputes between the non-state and state sectors must have been the highest in the country, as Guangdong province has the lowest proportion of state sector enterprises. Using this figure as a basis, the official figure for national labour disputes could be mostly attributed to the state sector. Analysis of reported statistics on workers' 'turmoil' in 1992 observes a 'low frequency of disturbances in the fast-growing eastern provinces' while the interior provinces in central China experienced 'the most turmoil'.

Between 1990 and 1994, there were three initiatives taken by dissident workers and members of the intelligentsia to organise autonomous labour bodies. The Free Labour Union of China (FLUC), in alliance with a cluster of underground oppositional political parties emerged in 1992. This was followed in 1994 by an attempt to organise an open labour rights advocacy group, the League for the Protection of the Rights of the Working People (LPRWP). Also a labour service centre, the Hired-hand Workers' Federation (HWF) was set up among migrant workers in 1994 in Shenzhen. Although these attempts had distinct workerist agendas, the organisations remained numerically tiny. Their political significance however outweighs the numbers involved and all the organisers of the associations ended up in prison.

Although the demand for freedom of association linked the FLUC, with both LPRWP and the HWF there appears to have been no organisational continuity. From the various personal accounts, there seemed to be little direct contact among organisers of the different initiatives. This was more a result of government repression than any deliberate policy. However, there is little doubt that the absence of such linkages between the initiatives and the formation of any genuine cohesion among the organisers contributed towards their isolation and also the failure of a united leadership to emerge.

1996 to the Present

Over the last four years, it might be argued that the dividing line between demonstrations brought on by economic hardship that has resulted from privatisation and overtly political acts of association has become blurred. More by coincidence than by design. Since the fifteenth Congress of the CCP in 1997, China's working class has been subject to a wave of redundancies brought on by the policy to bankrupt, merge or sell off small and medium size SOEs. At the time of this conference, urban unemployment is probably around 20 percent, with some areas such as the northeast and Sichuan province being hit much harder than others. The result has been a dramatic rise in protests by laid-off workers. It is important to recognise the defensive nature of these incidents. Although the Public Security Bureau, along with most researchers, lumps strikes and demonstrations statistically together (nearly 200,000 in 1998) most of the protests are not strikes at all. They are collective demonstrations by groups of workers rarely more 300 strong, who are protesting at the lack of prompt payment of welfare benefits they are entitled to. This trend is perhaps the inevitable outcome of the system itself. Perhaps half of China's unemployed workforce is not officially registered as such. They are referred to as xiagang, a term that means redundant but with the individual still attached to his or her enterprise or work unit. Enterprises are legally bound to pay these workers a living allowance based on a percentage (20-30 percent) of their normal wage. However, the reason most firms lay off workers is because they are attempting to bring down unit costs. Many simply don't have the money - often due to corruption as well as economic reasons - to pay the stipend to laid off workers. Where this is the case, the government is supposed to step in and make up the difference. Hence the reason why many of the demonstrations by early retirees and laid-off workers are directed at the offices of the local labour bureau.

The fact that these actions are mostly conducted by former SOE workers in defence of economic rights, probably accounts for two distinctive features regarding the rise in unrest. Firstly, they are not strikes and the logical impulsion to build the demonstrations into much larger intra-enterprise protests is not present. Of course, there are noticeable exceptions to this trend. China's miners have a militant tradition and they have not taken the closure of many mines lying down. In 1999, the PLA was employed to put down a three-day protest by 20,000 miners in Liaoning province where miners were reported to have taken over a town. The China Labour Bulletin has frequently reported on large-scale clashes between miners and armed police over closures and wage arrears.

Yet these are exceptions rather then the rule. Most of the protests for pensions and livelihood allowances have been much smaller and lasted for two or three days. The second feature has been the relatively 'soft' approach adopted by the government in response. The CCP has ordered local governments to avoid taking actions that will lead to the protests spreading. Obviously there have been violent exceptions, but on the whole governments have been wary of the risk of inflaming local support for protestors who often point to the existence of much-hated corruption as one of the reasons for their distress. Another tactic has been for the police to temporarily detain the leaders of such demonstrations and then simply wait for the demonstration to collapse. This is a risky approach. While it has mostly worked for the authorities, there have been occasions where the reaction has been a march on police stations calling for the release of detained leaders.

Where the state has definitely not adopted a 'soft' approach has been when labour organisers have attempted to take advantage of the situation and set up labour organisations. These are rarely actually in workplaces. Unemployment has been such a major feature of recent economic trends that many of the angry workers involved are protesting because they have no workplaces to go to. The case of Hunan-based independent trade unionist Zhang Shanguang is an example of how brutal the regime can be in dealing with labour organisers. While Zhang's association for laid off workers was largely apolitical, the attempt to register the organisation legally - on the back of China's signing of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - was a profoundly political act. Zhang Shanguang was locked up for trying to organise the Shu Pu County Association for the Rights of Laid Off Workers. Zhang has a history of labour organising and in 1989 was sentenced for his involvement in the Hunan Workers Autonomous Federation (HWAF). On his release, he was blacklisted by employers and denied work. In the more recent arrest, the police handed Zhang's wife an official 'Notice of Detention', which stated that Zhang was a threat to national security and was being detained under Article 61 of the Criminal Procedures Bill. After a secret hearing lasting two hours, he was sentenced to 10 years.

Reflecting Zhang's political connections, eight people from the Hunan Province Committee of the China Democracy Movement released an open and signed document condemning the authorities.

Zhang's case and others like it stand out when compared to those activists who have concentrated on purely work-placed based economic protests. While such acts have often been marked by detentions, they have generally not attracted the heavy prison sentences handed down for 'subverting state sovereignty'. For example Zhu Rui, a teacher employed by the Beijing Factory 3501 made open attempts to organise a legal demonstration against new short-term contracts that the company was forcing on the workforce. Although her activities included speaking to foreign reporters, she has not been imprisoned. After the introduction of the new work arrangements, Zhu and others formed an organising committee to re-negotiate the contracts. They also decided to try and obtain permission to hold a legal demonstration to air their grievances and campaign for public support. Despite attempts by management to undermine the committee, they made sure that every step they took was in accordance with the PRC, Law on Assemblies, Marches and Demonstrations. However, the organising committee, which had already gone to great efforts to organise the action and boost workers confidence and solidarity to take part, accepted the predictable refusal. The Demonstration Law does allow an appeal to be lodged, but on account of the already considerable delay as well as the approach of Chinese New Year, workers decided to call off the march following a meeting. Although detained for an afternoon, Zhu Rui was not formally arrested and charged.

Of course, it is possible that the difference in the treatment meted out to the two above examples is purely arbitrary. Like Zhang Shanguang, Zhu Rui also had a history of political dissent. Yet there are tentative conclusions that can be drawn which may be relevant to considering how the international labour movement responds to the growing labour unrest in China. Firstly, as the ICFTU pointed out in its report 'Search and Destroy' it appears that the government draws the line at attempts to set up organisations (legally or otherwise), but is more hesitant to clamp down hard when it comes to purely economic protests where employers or officials are accused of breaking the law, corruption or both. Secondly, and at risk of stating the obvious, it is self-evident that despite the high level of defensive labour struggles, the state has succeeded in preventing a national labour movement from developing. It is perhaps the task of this conference to address the reasons for this in order to consider our response.


Online: 2001-8-17

Posted By

Aug 19 2005 09:24


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