Report on the struggle of Guixi Co-op workers in Chengdu against the cooperative equivalent to a management buyout. Reflections on the use of homicide - or the threat of homicide - as a weapon of the weak over the past few years in China.
After writing this a few days ago I learned about a more recent incident where the implicit threat of homicide was effectively used by workers to win a battle against retrenchment: Yesterday (August 16), the provincial government of Henan stepped in to block the sale of state-owned Linzhou Iron & Steel to a private company after workers captured a government negotiator and held him hostage for 90 hours. (See reports in English and Chinese.)
When my friend told me about the Workers’ Forum on chuizi.net, she was pointing out a report about a small-scale but interesting workers’ struggle in Chengdu. That is a variation on the management-buyout theme so common several years ago. Instead of an SOE (state-owned enterprise), this involved an old supply and marketing cooperative called Guixi.
I don’t understand the structure of these old co-ops or their relationship to the state. The report says Guixi’s assets come from five sources: co-op members’ investment (社员投入股金), state investment (公积金), bank loans, employee investment (职工投入之股金), and after-tax income.1 When the report refers to the “Chengdu Municipal Supply & Marketing Cooperative” (成都市供销合作社) and the “National General Cooperative of Supply & Marketing Cooperatives” (中华全国供销合作总社) as having power over Guixi, I assume these are not co-ops but something like state offices somehow responsible for co-ops.
In any case, Chen Fayuan, director (主任) of the Chengdu Municipal Supply & Marketing Cooperative [Office?], went behind the Guixi workers’ backs and sold the co-op’s store for over 220 million yuan (32 million USD).2 The workers wrote letters asking for help from various state organs,including the “Natonal General Cooperative [Office?],” but no one was willing to help. So finally the workers decided on direct action. They put a padlock on the store so Chen or the new owners (?) couldn’t get in, and apparently they stood guard outside. The photo shows a sign they carried that reads “a blood-letting incident against corruption will soon take place”:
The title of the report on Workers’ Forum is “The Tonghua Steel incident will soon be repeated in Chengdu,” and the author implies the Guixi workers’ sign was referring to that incident in particular as a threat against Chen. With all due respect to the well-meaning author,the report contains more Maoist rhetoric about the glory of the working class etc. than details about the actual struggle, and neither it nor the two pages of comments say where the workers stand at this point or what they plan to do. All it says is that on August 5 some thugs (流氓) – apparently hired by Chen or the new owners – went and cut the padlock with shears, and armed police protected the thugs from the workers, threatening to arrest the workers (it’s not clear whether anyone was actually arrested or injured – or, for that matter, how many people were involved). The author left the phone number of the workers’ “represenative,” Hu Jinyu, but when I called it the man who answered said it was the wrong number, that he didn’t know anything about the Guixi Co-op.
I find it disappointing that the author and the commenters on chuizi.net and another website where the report was posted don’t seem interested in actually doing anything to help beyond repeating slogans like “[I] strongly voice support for the workers of Guixi Co-op! Hold fast, friends, and don’t worry! The masses of the Chinese people have got your back!” (强烈声援桂溪供销合作社的职工们！你们放心，你们顶住！全国的人民群众都是你们的后盾！) No one else must have called the number or surely someone would have pointed out that it was wrong. (It’s also possible it’s the right number and either Hu Jinyu doesn’t want to talk to strangers, or the phone got into someone else’s hands.) There’s at least one other report about this on the web but it’s blocked – let me know if you learn any other details.
Beyond disappointment at this apparent lack of practical action among people who claim to support such resistance, one thing I find interesting about this incident is the workers’ use of the threat of homicide as a tactic. Actually the signs in the photo don’t refer to Tonghua – instead they refer generally to “blood-letting incidents against corruption” (反腐流血事件). That’s the first time I’ve seen this term, but it seems to imply that such incidents as Tonghua (where steelworkers defenestrated a manager when they heard 25,000 workers would be laid off when the SOE was sold to a private enterprise), Liu Hanhuang (the migrant worker who stabbed to death two managers in a row over compensation for the loss of his right hand) and Deng Yujiao (the masseuse who stabbed to death a government official who made
sexual advances on her) are being put into the same category, and that the existence of such incidents is being regarded as a source of power for workers.
Do you know of any other recent incidents that would fit this category? Of course there was the mass Uyghur attack on Han Chinese in Urumqi last month, and the smaller-scale Tibetan attack on Han Chinese in Lhasa last year.3 Not sure how well they fit this category, and I think both incidents – being oriented toward Hans in general rather than people in positions of power – did more harm to inter-ethnic working class solidarity than anything else – but a case could be made that these were similar
Around the same time last year there was the case of Yang Jia, the 28-year-old man who ran into a police department in Shanghai and attacked 10 cops with a knife, killing six, saying they had harassed
and beaten him, and he wanted to teach the police of China a lesson. He became an internet hero too, but less popular than Deng Yujiao, and his death sentence was not commuted.
Then in February there were the three unemployed men in Foshan who set off a bomb in a business hotel to claim back wages from the management. (I read about this in Black Rim and haven’t been able to find any more details.)
Several years ago, in 2005, there was the case of Wang Binyu, the 28-year-old migrant worker from Gansu who killed four scabs (co-workers who sided with the boss) after repeatedly asking for back wages to pay for his father’s urgent medical treatment. Utopia started an online petition to commute his death sentence, but not only did it fail to prevent Wang’s execution; the government forced Utopia to shut down and reopen at a new address on the condition they “limit their activities to purely academic discussions.”4
Perhaps we could also add to this category the case of Ma Jiajue, the student who killed four of his roommates in 2004 – ostensibly because they accused him of cheating at cards, but more importantly because they repeatedly made fun of his poor rural background.
One interesting thing about this new (?) category, “blood-letting incidents against corruption,” is the term “against corruption” (反腐). That’s a very ideological term used by Chinese CP leaders (like politicians around the world) to imply that the system is basically fine, the problem is just the moral failings of a few individuals in power, and that the CP can solve that problem through top-down campaigns to punish and root out those corrupt individuals – at most, with the assistance of the common people. It’s interesting that the workers of Guixi Co-op adopted this term and gave it radically new meaning by linking it to such incidents of violent direct action by the common people. Not to imply that I endorse such actions, but just to recognize that there seems to be a pattern of homicide – or the threat of homicide – being used as what James Scott called a “weapon of the weak.” Certainly non-violent collective action would be morally preferable, but when that can’t be done for one reason or another, the weak resort to other weapons.
- I don’t know the difference between members and
employees, but since it is a marketing co-op, I assume consumers can
become members by paying a membership fee or buying shares that made
them partial owners. ↩
- This seems too high to believe – wonder if the author made a mistake. ↩
- I know the peaceful Tibetan protests at that time
were much larger scale – I mean the violent attack of Tibetans on Han
Chinese in Lhasa was small-scale compared with last month’s killing
spree in Urumqi. I’m not talking about protests or even riots here as
such, but the use of homicide – or the threat of homicide – as a weapon
of the weak over the past few years in China. ↩
- Andy Yinan Hu, “Swimming against the Tide: Tracing and Locating Chinese Leftism Online,” p.162 ↩
Reposted from ChinaStudyGroup.net