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Chinese working class and neoliberalism

August 31st, 2012 · No Comments

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Issue 7-8: Emancipation *
*Essays *
*China in Revolt*
*by Eli Friedman *
Few in the West are aware of the drama unfolding in today’s “epicenter of
global labor unrest.” A scholar of China exposes its tumultuous labor
politics and their lessons for the Left.

The Chinese working class plays a Janus-like role in the political
imaginary of neoliberalism. On the one hand, it’s imagined as the
competitive victor of capitalist globalization, the conquering juggernaut
whose rise spells defeat for the working classes of the rich world. What
hope is there for the struggles of workers in Detroit or Rennes when the
Sichuanese migrant is happy to work for a fraction of the price?

At the same time, Chinese workers are depicted as the pitiable victims of
globalization, the guilty conscience of First World consumers. Passive and
exploited toilers, they suffer stoically for our iPhones and bathtowels.
And only we can save them, by absorbing their torrent of exports, or
campaigning benevolently for their humane treatment at the hands of “our”

For parts of the rich-world left, the moral of these opposing narratives is
that here, in our own societies, labor resistance is consigned to history’s
dustbin. Such resistance is, first of all, perverse and decadent. What
entitles pampered Northern workers, with their “First World problems,” to
make material demands on a system that already offers them such abundance
furnished by the wretched of the earth? And in any case, resistance against
so formidable a competitive threat must surely be futile.

By depicting Chinese workers as Others – as abject subalterns or
competitive antagonists – this tableau wildly miscasts the reality of labor
in today’s China. Far from triumphant victors, Chinese workers are facing
the same brutal competitive pressures as workers in the West, often at the
hands of the same capitalists. More importantly, it is hardly their
stoicism that distinguishes them from us.

Today, the Chinese working class is fighting. More than thirty years into
the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the
epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics,
it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take
place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes – there is no such thing
as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen
to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.

More importantly, *workers are winning*, with many strikers capturing large
wage increases above and beyond any legal requirements. Worker resistance
has been a serious problem for the Chinese state and capital and, as in the
United States in the 1930s, the central government has found itself forced
to pass a raft of labor legislation. Minimum wages are going up by double
digits in cities around the country and many workers are receiving social
insurance payments for the first time.

Labor unrest has been growing for two decades, and the past two years
a-lone have brought a qualitative advance in the character of worker

But if there are lessons for the Northern left in the experience of Chinese
workers, finding them requires an examination of the unique conditions
those workers face – conditions which, today, are cause for both great
optimism and great pessimism.

Over the past two decades of insurgency, a relatively coherent catalog of
worker-resistance tactics has emerged. When a grievance arises, workers’
first step is often to talk directly to managers. These requests are almost
always ignored, especially if they relate to wages.

Strikes, on the other hand, do work. But they are never organized by the
official Chinese unions, which are formally subordinate to the Communist
Party and generally controlled by management at the enterprise level. Every
strike in China is organized autonomously, and frequently in direct
opposition to the official union, which encourages workers to pursue their
grievances through legal channels instead.

The legal system, comprising workplace mediation, arbitration, and court
cases, attempts to individualize conflict. This, combined with collusion
between state and capital, means that this system generally cannot resolve
worker grievances. It is designed in large part to prevent strikes.

Until 2010, the most common reason for workers to strike was nonpayment of
wages. The demand in these strikes is straightforward: pay us the wages to
which we are entitled. Demands for improvements above and beyond existing
law were rare. Given that legal violations were and are endemic, there has
been fertile ground for such defensive struggles.

Strikes generally begin with workers putting down their tools and staying
inside the factory, or at least on factory grounds. Surprisingly, there is
little use of scab labor in China, and so pickets are rarely used.*

When faced with recalcitrant management, workers sometimes escalate by
heading to the streets. This tactic is directed at the government: by
affecting public order, they immediately attract state attention. Workers
sometimes march to local government offices or simply block a road. Such
tactics are risky, as the government may support strikers, but just as
frequently will resort to force. Even if a compromise is struck, public
demonstrations will often result in organizers being detained, beaten, and

Even more risky, and yet still common, is for workers to engage in sabotage
and property destruction, riot, murder their bosses, and physically
confront the police. Such tactics appear to be more prevalent in response
to mass layoffs or bankruptcies. A number of particularly intense
confrontations took place in late 2008 and early 2009 in response to mass
layoffs in export processing due to the economic crisis in the West. As
will be explained, workers may now be developing an antagonistic
consciousness vis-à-vis the police.

But the least spectacular item in this catalog of resistance forms the
essential backdrop to all the others: migrants, increasingly, have simply
been refusing to take the bad jobs they used to flock to in the export
processing zones of the southeast.

A labor shortage first arose in 2004, and in a nation that still has more
than 700?million rural residents, most assumed it to be a short-term fluke.
Eight years later, there is clearly a structural shift taking place.
Economists have engaged in intense debate about the causes of the labor
shortage, a debate I will not recap here. Suffice it to say that a large
swath of manufacturers in coastal provinces such as Guangdong, Zhejiang,
and Jiangsu has not been able to attract and retain workers.

Regardless of the specific reasons, the salient point is that the shortage
has driven up wages and strengthened workers’ power in the market – an
advantage that they have been exploiting.

A turning point came in the summer of 2010, marked by a momentous strike
wave that began at a Honda transmission plant in Nanhai.

Since then, there has been a change in the character of worker resistance,
a development noted by many analysts. Most importantly, worker demands have
become *offensive*. Workers have been asking for wage increases above and
beyond those to which they are legally entitled, and in many strikes they
have begun to demand that they elect their own union representatives. They
have not called for independent unions outside of the official All-China
Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), as this would surely incite violent
state repression. But the insistence on elections represents the
germination of political demands, even if the demand is only organized at
the company level.

The strike wave was detonated at Nanhai, where for weeks workers had been
grumbling about low wages and discussing the idea of a stoppage. On
17?May?2010, hardly any of them knew that a single employee – whom many
reports have since identified by the pseudonym Tan Zhiqing – would call the
strike on his own initiative by simply hitting the emergency stop button,
shutting down both of the plant’s production lines.

Workers walked out of the factory. By that afternoon, management was
pleading with them to return to work and open negotiations. Production was
in fact resumed that day. But the workers had formulated their initial
demand: a wage increase of 800?rmb per month, amounting to a 50?percent
hike for regular workers.

More demands followed: for the “reorganization” of the company’s official
union, which was offering the workers virtually no support in their
struggle, as well as the reinstatement of two fired workers. During the
talks workers again walked out, and one week into the strike all of Honda’s
assembly plants in China had been shut down due to lack of parts.

Meanwhile, news of the Nanhai strike began to spark widespread unrest among
industrial workers around the country. Chinese newspaper headlines told the
story: “One Wave Is Higher Than the Next, Strike Also Erupts At Honda Lock
Factory”; “70?Thousand Participate in Dalian Strike Wave Affecting
73?Enterprises, Ends With 34.5%?Wage Increases”; “Honda Wage Strikes Are a
Shock to the Low-Cost Manufacturing Model.” In each strike, the main demand
was for major wage increases, although in many of them demands for union
reorganization were also heard – a political development of great

One of these copycat strikes was especially notable for its militancy and
organization. Over the weekend of June 19–20, a group of up to two hundred
workers at Denso, a Japanese-owned auto parts maker supplying Toyota, met
secretly to discuss plans. At the meeting, they decided on a strategy of
“three nos:” for three days there would be no work, no demands, and no

They knew that by disrupting the supply chain, the neighboring Toyota
assembly plant would be forced to shut down in a matter of days. By
committing to strike for three days without demands, they anticipated
mounting losses both for Denso and for Toyota’s larger production chain.

Their plan worked. On Monday morning, they kicked off the strike by walking
out and blocking trucks from leaving the plant. By that afternoon, six
other factories in the same industrial zone had closed, and the next day
the lack of parts forced a shutdown in the Toyota assembly plant.

On the third day, as they had planned, workers elected twenty-seven
representatives and went into negotiations with the central demand of an
800?RMB wage increase. After three days of talks involving the CEO of
Denso, who had flown in from Japan, it was announced that they had won the
full 800 RMB increase.

If the summer of 2010 was characterized by radical but relatively orderly
resistance to capital, the summer of 2011 produced two mass insurrections
against the state.

In the same week in June 2011, immense worker riots rocked the suburban
manufacturing areas of Chaozhou and Guangzhou, both leading to widespread
and highly targeted property destruction. In the Chaozhou town of Guxiang,
a Sichuanese worker seeking back wages was brutally attacked by
knife-wielding thugs and his former boss. In response to this, thousands of
other migrants began demonstrating at the local government offices, many of
them having suffered years of discrimination and exploitation by employers
working in collusion with officials.

The protest was purportedly organized by a loosely organized Sichuan
“hometown association,” one of the mafia-like organizations that have
proliferated in an environment where open association is not tolerated.
After surrounding the government offices, the migrants quickly turned their
ire on local residents who they felt had discriminated against them. After
they burned dozens of cars and looted stores, armed police were required to
put down the riot and to disband locals who had organized into vigilante

Just one week later, an even more spectacular uprising took place on the
outskirts of Guangzhou in Zengcheng. A pregnant woman from Sichuan hawking
goods on the side of the street was approached by police and violently
shoved to the ground. Rumors immediately began circulating among factory
workers in the area that she had miscarried as a result of the altercation;
whether or not this was actually the case quickly became irrelevant.

Enraged by another incident of police aggression, indignant workers rioted
throughout Zengcheng for several days, burning down a police station,
battling riot cops, and blockading a national highway. Other Sichuanese
migrants reportedly poured into Zengcheng from around Guangdong to join in.
Eventually the People’s Liberation Army was called in to put down the
insurrection and engaged the militants with live ammunition. Despite
denials from the government, it is likely that a number of people were

In just a few years, worker resistance has gone from defensive to
offensive. Seemingly small incidents have set off mass uprisings,
indicative of generalized anger. And ongoing labor shortages in coastal
areas point to deeper structural shifts that have also changed the dynamics
of labor politics.

All of this presents a severe challenge to the model of export-led
development and wage repression that has characterized the political
economy of China’s southeastern coastal regions for more than two decades.
By the end of the 2010 strike wave, Chinese media commentators were
declaring that the era of low-wage labor had come to an end.

But if such material gains are cause for optimism, entrenched
depoliticization means that workers cannot take much satisfaction from
these victories. Any attempt by workers to articulate an explicit politics
is instantly and effectively smashed by the Right and its state allies by
raising the specter of the Lord of Misrule: do you really want to go back
to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution?

If in the West “there is no alternative,” in China the two official
alternatives are a frictionless and efficient capitalist technocracy (the
Singaporean fantasy) or unmitigated, feral, and profoundly irrational
political violence. As a result, workers self-consciously submit to the
state-imposed segregation of economic and political struggles and present
their demands as economic, legal, and in accordance with the stultifying
ideology of “harmony.” To do otherwise would incite harsh state repression.

Perhaps workers can win a wage hike in one factory, social insurance in
another. But this sort of dispersed, ephemeral, and desubjectivized
insurgency has failed to crystallize any durable forms of counter-hegemonic
organization capable of coercing the state or capital at the class level.

The result is that when the state does intervene on behalf of workers –
either by supporting immediate demands during strike negotiations or
passing legislation that improves their material standing – its image as
“benevolent Leviathan” is buttressed: it has done these things not because
workers have demanded them, but because it cares about “weak and
disadvantaged groups” (as workers are referred to in the official lexicon).

Yet it is only through an ideological severing of cause from effect at the
symbolic level that the state is able to maintain the pretense that workers
are in fact “weak.” Given the relative success of this project, the working
class is political, but it is alienated from its own political activity.

It is impossible to understand how this situation is maintained without
grasping the social and political position of today’s working class. The
Chinese worker of today is a far cry from the heroic and hyper-masculinized
proletarians of Cultural Revolution propaganda posters. In the state-owned
sector, workers were never really “masters of the enterprise” as claimed by
the state. But they were guaranteed lifetime employment, and their work
unit also bore the cost of social reproduction by providing housing,
education, health care, pensions, and even wedding and funeral services.

In the 1990s, the central government began a massive effort to privatize,
downsize, or desubsidize many state-owned enterprises, which led to major
social and economic dislocations in northeastern China’s “Rust Belt.” While
material conditions for workers in the remaining state-owned companies are
still better in relative terms, today these firms are increasingly run in
accordance with the logic of profit maximization.

Of greater immediate interest is the new working class, composed of
migrants from the countryside who have flocked to the “Sun Belt” cities of
the southeast. With the transition to capitalism beginning in 1978, farmers
originally fared well, as the market provided higher prices for
agricultural goods than the state had. But by the mid 1980s, these gains
began to be wiped out by rampant inflation, and the rural population
started to look for new sources of income. As China opened its doors to
export-oriented manufacturing in the southeast coastal regions, these
farmers were transformed into migrant workers.

At the same time, the state discovered that a number of institutions
inherited from the command economy were useful for enhancing private
accumulation. Chief among these was the *hukou* or household registration
system, which tied an individual’s social benefits to a particular place.
The *hukou* is a complex and increasingly decentralized instrument of
administration, but the key thing to note is that it institutionalizes a
spatial and social severing between migrant workers’ productive and
reproductive activities – between their work life and their home and family

This separation has shaped every aspect of migrant workers’ labor
struggles. Young migrants come to cities to work in factories, restaurants,
and construction sites, to engage in petty crime, sell street food, or earn
a living as sex workers. But the state never made any pretense that
migrants are formally equal to urban residents or that they are welcome for
the long term.

Migrants do not enjoy access to any of the public services that urban
residents have, including health care, housing, and education. They require
official permission to be in the city, and during the 1990s and early 2000s
there were many instances of migrants being detained, beaten, and
“deported” for not having papers. For at least a generation, migrant
workers’ primary aim has been to earn as much money as they could before
returning to the village in their mid twenties to get married and have a

Other formal arrangements ensure that migrants are not able to make a life
in the city. The system of social insurance (including health insurance,
pensions, unemployment insurance, maternity insurance, and workplace injury
insurance) is organized at the municipal level. This means the migrants who
are lucky enough to have employer-supported social insurance – a small
minority – are paying into a system that they will never benefit from. If
pensions are not portable, why would a migrant demand a better one? Worker
demands therefore focus quite rationally on the most immediate of wage

Thus, subjectively, migrants do not refer to themselves as “workers,” nor
do they think of themselves as part of the “working class.” Rather, they
are *mingong*, or peasant-workers, and they engage in “selling labor” (*
dagong*) rather than having a profession or a career. The temporality of
this relationship to work is perhaps the norm under neoliberal capitalism,
but rates of turnover in many Chinese factories are astonishing, sometimes
exceeding 100?percent a year.

The implications for the dynamics of worker resistance have been immense.
For example, there are very few recorded struggles over the length of the
working day. Why would workers want to spend more time in a city that
rejects them? The “work-life balance” of hr discourse means nothing to an
eighteeen-year-old migrant worker toiling in a suburban Shanghai factory.
In the city, migrants live to work – not in the self-actualizing sense but
in the very literal sense. If a worker assumes that they are just earning
money to eventually bring back home, there is little reason (or
opportunity) to ask for more time “for what one will” in the city.

Another example: every year just before the Chinese New Year, the number of
strikes in the construction sector surges. Why? This holiday is the only
time of the year that most migrants will return to their hometowns, and is
often the only time that they can see family members, often including
spouses and children. Construction workers are generally paid only when a
project is completed, but nonpayment of wages has been endemic since the
deregulation of the industry in the 1980s. The idea of going back to the
village empty-handed is unacceptable for workers, since the reason they
left for the city in the first place was because of the promise of
marginally higher wages. Hence the strikes.

In other words, migrant workers have not attempted to link struggles in
production to struggles over other aspects of life or broader social
issues. They are severed from the local community and do not have any right
to speak as citizens. Demands for wages have not expanded into demands for
more time, for better social services, or for political rights.

Capital, meanwhile, has relied on several tried-and-true methods to prop up

Within the factory, the biggest development of the past few years is one
that will be drearily familiar to workers in the US, Europe, or Japan: the
explosive growth of various kinds of precarious labor, including temps,
student interns, and, most importantly, “dispatch workers.”

Dispatch workers are directly employed by a labor contracting firm – many
of which are owned by local labor bureaus – which then “dispatches” its
workers to sites where they will be put to work. This has the obvious
effect of obscuring the employment relationship, and enhancing flexibility
for capital. Dispatch labor now constitutes a huge percentage of the
workforce (often more than 50?percent in a given workplace) in an
incredibly diverse array of industries, including manufacturing, energy,
transportation, banking, healthcare, sanitation, and the service industry.
The trend has emerged in domestic private, foreign private, joint-venture,
and state-owned enterprises.

But the big story in recent years has been the relocation of industrial
capital from the coastal regions into central and western China. There are
huge social and political consequences that derive from this “spatial fix,”
and they present the working class with a new and potentially
transformative set of possibilities. Whether or not these possibilities
will be realized is of course a question that can only be resolved in

The case of Foxconn, China’s largest private employer, is instructive here.
Foxconn moved from its original home in Taiwan to coastal Shenzhen more
than a decade ago, but in the wake of the 2010 worker suicides and the
ongoing public scrutiny of its highly militarized and alienating work
environment, it is now being forced to move once again. The company is
currently in the process of drawing down its manufacturing workforce in
Shenzhen, having built massive new facilities in inland provinces. The two
largest of these are in the provincial capitals of Zhengzhou and Chengdu.

It isn’t hard to understand the attraction that the interior holds for such
companies. Although wages in Shenzhen and other coastal areas are still
quite low by global standards (less than 200 USD a month), wages in
interior provinces such as Henan, Hubei, and Sichuan can be almost half
that. Many employers also assume, perhaps correctly, that more migrants
will be available closer to the source, and a looser labor market also has
immediate political advantages for capital. This, too, is a familiar story
of capitalism: the labor historian Jefferson Cowie identified a similar
process at work in his history of electronics manufacturer rca’s
“seventy-year quest for cheap labor” – a quest that took the company from
New Jersey to Indiana to Tennessee, and finally to Mexico.

If coastal China has offered transnational capital highly favorable social
and political conditions for the past two decades, things will be different
in the interior. The antagonism between labor and capital may be universal,
but class conflict proceeds on the terrain of particularity.

So what is particular about the Chinese interior, and why might it be
grounds for cautious optimism? Whereas migrants in coastal regions are
necessarily transitory – and their struggles therefore ephemeral – in the
interior they have the possibility of establishing durable community.
Theoretically, this means that there is a greater possibility to fuse
struggles in the spheres of production and reproduction, something that was
not possible when these two arenas were spatially severed.

Consider the issue of *hukou*, the household registration. The huge eastern
megalopolises to which migrants have flocked in the past have very tight
restrictions on gaining local residency. Even white-collar workers with
graduate degrees can have a difficult time getting a Beijing *hukou*.

But smaller cities in the interior have set a much lower bar for gaining
local residency. While it is admittedly speculative, it is worth thinking
about how this will change the dynamics of worker resistance. If, before,
migrants’ presumed life trajectory was to go work in the city for a few
years to earn money before returning home and starting a family, workers in
the interior may have a very different perspective. Suddenly they are not
just “working,” but also “living,” in a particular place.

This implies that migrants will be much more likely to settle permanently
in their places of work. They will want to find spouses, have their own
places of residence, have kids, send those kids to school – in short,
engage in social reproduction.

Previously, employers did not have to pay migrant workers a livable wage,
and there was no pretense that this was to be expected, since it was clear
that workers would go back to the village to settle down. But in the
interior, migrants will likely demand all the things one needs for a decent
life – housing, health care, education, and some protection against the
risks of unemployment and old age. They may also want time for themselves
and for their community, a demand that has been conspicuously absent up to
the present.

This raises the possibility of the politicization of worker unrest. Decent
public services were never an expectation of migrants on the coast. But if
they can establish residence rights in the interior, demands for social
services could easily be generalized, providing the opportunity to escape
the isolation of workplace-based struggles. Demands for social protection
are more likely to be aimed at the state than at individual employers,
establishing the symbolic foundation for a generalizable confrontation.

Although it is easy to romanticize the brave and sometimes spectacular
resistance of migrant workers, the reality is that the most frequent
response to bad working conditions has simply been to quit and find another
job or return home. This, too, may change if they work where they live. The
conditions may now be in place for migrants to stand their ground and fight
for their community and in their community rather than simply fleeing.

The biographies of workers in the interior may also present opportunities
for enhanced militancy. Many of these migrants have previous experience
working and fighting in coastal regions. Older workers may lack the
militant passion of youth, but their experience in dealing with
exploitative bosses and their state allies could be an invaluable resource.

Finally, workers will have greater social resources at their command. In
large coastal cities, they would be unlikely to garner much sympathy from
local residents, a fact made painfully clear in the Guxiang riots. But in
the interior, workers may have friends and family nearby, people who are
not just inclined to side with labor but who may in a very direct way
depend on increased wages and social services. This presents the
possibility of expanding struggles beyond the workplace to incorporate
broader social issues.

There may be some on the Left who are sanguine about perpetual resistance
in and of itself. And the form of class conflict that has prevailed in
China *has* caused major disruptions for capital accumulation.

But workers are alienated from their own political activity. A profound
asymmetry exists: workers resist haphazardly and without any strategy,
while the state and capital respond to this crisis self-consciously and in
a coordinated manner.

So far, this fragmented and ephemeral form of struggle has been unable to
make any major dent in the basic structures of the party-state and its
ruling ideology. And capital, as a universal tendency, has proven its
ability to subdue militant particularities over and over again. If militant
worker resistance simply forces capital to destroy one working class and
produce a new (antagonistic) working class somewhere else, can we really
consider this a victory?

The new frontier of capital accumulation presents the Chinese working class
with opportunities to establish more enduring forms of organization capable
of expanding the domain of social struggle and formulating broad-based
political demands.

But until that happens, it will remain a half-step behind its historical
antagonist – and ours.

**It is not immediately apparent why employers have only infrequently
attempted to use scab labor. One explanation is that the government would
not support such a move, as it could heighten tensions and lead to violence
or greater social disruptions. Another factor is simply that strikes rarely
last for more than a day or two, as strikers do not have the institutional
support of a union and often come under intense pressure from the state.
The result is that there is perhaps less need for scabs on the part of

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