In late August Chinese police raided an apartment, arresting 50 student activists supporting workers attempting to unionise their factory.
Workers’ efforts to set up an independent union and protest working conditions at the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen have attracted significant support.
In May workers at the factory, which employs 1000 people producing welding equipment, began trying to organise a union after saying management was treating them like “slaves”.
According to the China Labour Bulletin, “Management had robbed them of hundreds of yuan each month by arbitrarily changing their schedules and under-paid their social insurance and housing fund contributions among other abuses.”
Huang Lanfeng, a former worker at the factory, told Reuters, “Sometimes we would work for one month straight without any time off. They wouldn’t let us freely quit and they even watched us go to the toilet.”
The workers attempted to register a union through the official government process. The Chinese government only allows unions registered as part of the official state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions. This works to head off disputes and manage discontent, rather than lead strikes or work to improve conditions.
But when they attempted to organise the union at the factory, Jasic management appears to have taken control and installed hand-picked union committee members.
When workers continued to push their demands, seven worker activists at the factory were beaten up and sacked. “When they tried to enter the plant on 20 July,” the China Labour Bureau reported, “they were stopped at the gates by security guards and after an altercation erupted, police intervened and a few workers were detained.”
Weeks of protests followed outside the factory that led to police arresting 29 people. The workers then demonstrated outside the local police station demanding their co-workers’ release.
These actions began to attract attention from student activists across the country.
According to academic Jenny Chan, students and recent graduates from more than a dozen universities circulated online petitions and staged actions in support of the workers, posting videos to social media. “They wore T-shirts with the slogan ‘unity is power’ printed in bold red,” she wrote. Students also travelled to the factory to support the workers, with some trying to get jobs there to assist them.
Shen Mengyu, a university graduate and labour activist, was kidnapped by police and held under house arrest in August, after she helped publish an open letter in the workers’ support and began leading protests near the factory. She is a well-known Maoist activist who took a job at a car parts factory in Guangzhou after graduating from university in 2015 in an effort to support worker activism.
The dispute has also attracted the attention of older Maoist activists. According to the South China Morning Post, a number of them also travelled to the factory in early August when, “More than 40 Communist Party members and retired cadres, who are part of the country’s leading Maoist internet forum, Utopia, joined the rally.”
Maoism is experience a revival in China as way to express opposition to the government from within the official ideology, based on nostalgia about Mao’s period of rule. But what is needed is a Marxism that is clear about the revolutionary potential of workers’ struggle as the force that can introduce genuine socialism.
China’s economic growth has produced extreme inequality, with more than 800 billionaires in US dollar terms, 40 per cent more than in the US. One third of the country’s wealth is held by the top 1 per cent of households, according to a 2016 Peking University study.
Yet workers continue to suffer extreme working hours, months of unpaid wages, and exposure to dangerous chemicals.
According to the China Labour Bulletin, which tracks workers’ action, “strikes and collective protests are widespread and commonplace across all industries and across the whole of China”.
Strikes at individual factories are fairly common, but most are resolved quickly. The central government has made efforts to ensure disputes do not spread beyond individual workplaces through banning independent trade unions, a crackdown on labour activism and attempting to introduce basic conditions. Simon Gilbert in Socialist Review explains this has involved, “a series of labour laws that, among other things, stipulate mandatory contracts, put limits on the working day and provide for social benefits.” But these are often not enforced.
Nonetheless China’s rapid industrialisation has created a huge working class with immense potential power. As the experience of countries like Egypt, South Korea and Brazil have shown, or even China’s own revolt around Tiananmen Square in 1989, in the right circumstances this can explode into a challenge to authoritarianism.
By James Supple