According to Donald Trump with his trade war on China, it’s “us” against “them” — all Americans regardless of class versus the Chinese government, capitalists and labor, united. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Chinese workers are fighting their own class war. The largest working class in the world has been stirring ever since China’s shift from public ownership to capitalism went into high gear in the 1990s. Beijing is getting worried.
China’s economy is the second largest in the world. Establishment analysts often characterize it as “market socialist,” a contradiction in terms. It is capitalist. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been dismantling state-owned enterprises for decades.
Now by every measure the private sector dominates. Just over 10 percent of the workforce is in the public sector; 90 percent of new jobs and over 60 percent of investment are private.
In the early years of the transition to capitalism, the economy was driven by foreign firms seeking cheap labor for products exported to advanced countries. Now this orientation is a thing of the past and China’s proportion of exports to overall production is similar to the United States.
A raging class struggle. The treatment of workers has been infamous. Disappearing public sector jobs and social services, pennies a day in earnings, and massive migration of people to the low-wage special economic zones defined the transition period.
Recently, there has been some improvement in wages. Laws mandate maximum work weeks, minimum wages, and employer payment of social insurance. In some sectors wages are higher than in other Asian countries or even Mexico, and foreign companies have slowly been shifting production away from China for several years.
But labor laws are often “paper tigers.” Companies routinely violate the laws by not signing labor contracts, under-paying or withholding wages, and not funding social insurance programs.
Workers have to enforce these basic rights through collective action. Since 2011, over 10,000 strike incidents throughout the country have been reported in the media and social media. Actual numbers are probably much higher. In the last several years, actions have been mostly small and short lived, and overwhelmingly against domestically owned companies.
Larger firms, often foreign-owned, have been pressured to raise wages and working conditions. As long as workers didn’t seek too much independence or attempt to break with the government sponsored All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the CCP bureaucracy would let the action proceed. Only unions belonging to the ACFTU are legal.
If the action was big, with the potential of spreading geographically or throughout an industrial sector, authorities intervened. Police attacked the 40,000 strong, primarily women strikers at the Yue Yuen Shoe factory in Dongguan in 2014. When the tower crane operators and truck drivers staged protests in multiple cities in 2018, the authorities responded with censorship of organizing efforts and heavy-handed police pressure.
Jasic workers won’t quit. Factory workers at the Chinese-owned Jasic Technologies plant in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone started a unionization campaign in May of 2018. A manufacturer of welding equipment, Jasic employs 1,000 workers at the plant. Employees’ shifts were being cut arbitrarily, and social insurance and housing funds starved. Working conditions were wretched.
They went through legal channels to set up a union, requesting and receiving permission from the district federation affiliated with the ACFTU. The company, fearing an independent union, formed its own subservient one. Then the local federation turned on the workers, declaring their unionization effort illegal. Jasic management fired activists leading the campaign, and the workers and their supporters protested. Jasic called the police when the fired workers attempted to enter the plant. Then the situation exploded.
Approximately 30 workers and their supporters protesting outside the plant were detained in July 2018. The response to the arrests was a wave of support from student and leftist groups across the country. Beijing (with the ACFTU in tow) is so concerned about strident labor and student activists coming together they have “disappeared” or arrested many. Today, 29 people, including two union organizers, are still in jail. To sign a petition to the government and the ACFTU in support of the detainees, go to bit.ly/jasicsolidarity.
Though the Jasic workers’ numbers are small, Beijing sees their militancy and broad-based support as a threat. It wants to keep a tight grip on dissent as it seeks to further its economic agenda of becoming a designer of upscale products, and reap global financial power accordingly. The bureaucracy walks a fine line, as the huge Chinese working class must be allowed high enough wages to be good consumers, but can’t be allowed to think for itself.
The courage of the Jasic employees and their supporters, especially their understanding of the vital role of independent unions, is an example to emulate. Their solidarity shows how to fight the bosses, foreign and domestic.