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Eine zweite Welle des Arbeiterwiderstands?

Im Jahr 2003 wurden in China 60.000 Protestaktionen registriert, an denen sich etwa 3 Millionen Menschen beteiligten. Einen Vergleich, was die Beteiligten (in den 90ern vor allem Belegschaften der staatlichen Betriebe im Widerstand gegen die Schaffung "moderner Unternehmen", heute vor allem aus dem Bereich der 20 Millionen, die in Sonderzonen arbeiten) die Breite und den Charakter der Protest- Widerstands- und Kampfaktionen chinesischer Werktätiger in der ersten Hälfte der 90er Jahre und ein Jahrzehnt später betrifft, versucht Wong Kam Yan in seinem (englischen) Beitrag "Second wave of China Labour Unrest?" - bereits im August 2005 geschrieben, aber ausgesprochen aktuell, informativ und lesenswert.

Second wave of China Labour Unrest?

Wong Kam Yan (Hong Kong, China)

On 13th July 2005, it was reported that there have been a 30 % rise in collective riots in China in recent years. Whereas in 1993, there were 10,000 reported cases with 700,000 participants, in 2003 it jumped to 60,000 reported cases with 3 million participants. Among the cases, labour unrest has been quite outstanding, though it is difficult to get official data.

The first wave of workers unrest

The first wave of labour protest were mainly waged by State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) workers in their fight against out right privatization or ‘restructuring’ into ‘modern enterprises’. It more or less started in early 90’s of the last century, and in the turn of the century it became sharper and involved more workers. The DaQing oil field case and the LiaoYang case had been the most reported cases. In March 2002, the DaQing oil field had 50,000 oil workers demonstrated for many days in protest against down sizing. The oil industry had undergone immense restructuring in order to compete with foreign oil giants in domestic market, which is going to full scale open up to the latter in 2007 under WTO accession requirement. Earlier in 2001, a metal plant in LiaoYang, also located in North East, as does the DaQing, went bankrupt with public property looted by the management and local officials. Workers took to the street to protest. Whereas the DaQing case was outstanding for the great number of protesters and their call for independent trade union, the LiaoYang case was spectacular for its effort in trying to link up with other factories workers to fight against privatization. Both cases were severely suppressed by the authority, and LiaoYang had its two central leaders sentenced to 4-7 years of imprisonment. The LiaoYang factory was subsequently bankrupted. For the oil industry, eventually 600,000 oil workers were sacked.

There may be hundreds or even thousands of cases of SOEs workers fight back in the last ten years, but generally they were lost battles. Up to 30 million SOEs workers were sacked, and women workers were generally the first to go. Between 1993 and 2003, SOEs industrial output in relation to total industrial output went down from 47% to 38.5%. Under the policy of ‘retaining the large (SOEs), letting go the small’ (practically even many medium SOEs have been ‘let go’ as well), many medium and small enterprises had been privatized. For big SOEs, they have been restructured as commercial entities whose ultimate ambition are transforming themselves into Trans National Corporations (TNCs) and compete in the global market with Mobile, or Fords. (Whether they can succeed is another matter.)

The new working class

While SOEs workers were sacked in huge numbers and their ranks greatly transformed in terms of ages, working conditions and experiences, a new working class have been in formation in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs), which mainly locate in the Pearl Delta.

There are some 800 EPZs all over the world, employing approximately 30 million workers. The Chinese EPZs employs approximately 20 million of them which accounts for two third of the world total. The Chinese figure speaks for the fact that China has become favorite heaven for TNCs’ Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), where in the EPZs workers work 12 or 14 hours a day for a minimum wages which can only enable workers to eat three bowls of noodles. From these EPZs incredible cheap Chinese products are exported to the world market, causing de-industralization, plants moving to China in many countries. This is a loss-loss situation for both international working class and the Chinese working class. While the former lost their better paid jobs, the latter did not get the same jobs the former has lost, but rather only get nasty jobs under terrible working conditions. These EPZs workers have to accept such horrible working conditions because they are mainly rural migrant workers who have nowhere to go to earn a living. Although peasants still possess small pieces of land (thanks to the 1949 revolution, and in fact it is one of the few social conquests of the revolution without being overturned during the 15 years long capitalist restoration), they are simply not enough for survival. Hence parents have to send their sons and daughters to work in the cities. Daughters have much better chances for getting jobs in the EPZs because the bosses prefer young women, for they tend to be more conformant and able to endure long hours of hard work. Women workers accounts for 70% of the workforce in EPZs.

While SOEs workers have largely been defeated in their fight against privatization, there have been a rise of strikes and protests in the EPZs. According to Shenzhen (a big migrant city close to Hong Kong) official figure, the city experienced labour protests involving 300,000 workers last year. In last year alone, there were already more than a dozen reported strikes and road blocking in Guangdong province alone. Numerous unrest was simply unreported.

EPZs workers went on strike

In July 2004, it was reported that two batteries factories in Mainland China has poisoned at least 370 workers with cadmium. The two factories belong to the Gold Peak Industrial Holding Ltd, an Hong Kong and Singapore based Asian TNC, and its electronic products are sold all over the world under different brand names. Affected workers were only paid with little compensation, and at one point even being threatened by the company and the local government that if they petition the central government in Beijing again they may end up with criminal charges.

The workers managed to fight back. Since then several strikes and road blocking (which is the only way to make their voices heard) were launched. What is worth mentioning is that it has been women workers who are at the lead of these actions. Globalization Monitor, a Hong Kong based NGO, has since then taken up the case and has been campaigning against the GP. It has gained support from many trade unions and NGOs in demanding the GP to set up a Hong Kong based medical fund to take care of the workers. In 5 August, the company finally yielded to the pressure from workers and HK campaigners, and announced the setting up of a 10 million HK dollars fund.

The Hong Kong intervention is instrumental in seizing concession from the GP. Without it the GP workers struggle may not have been sustainable or even got reported at all. The same goes for the Stella case which we will deal with below. Hong Kong has largely been crucial to the bureaucracy in its restoration project, but she may also be instrumental in the future Chinese labour movement, because Hong Kong is the only Chinese city which enjoy freedom of speech and partial electoral rights.

The violent Stella strike

Stella is a Taiwanese owned company making shoes for Nike and other big brands. Two factories under the Stella Company repeatedly paid their workers less than what had been agreed. On 21st April, 2004, in one of the factories workers saw their wages were cut again, and 1000 workers immediately responded with riot: machines were smashed, cars overturned, and supervisors beaten up. Two days later in another factory the same thing happened again but this time even more violent. 3000 workers broke into the plants and smashed everything inside. Police arrived but they were outnumbered. The next day more riot police were sent in. Eventually 10 workers were charged and were sentenced to three to three and a half years’ jail in October and November 2004. Several dozens workers were fired by the two factories. All workers were later released in early 2005 after labour activists in Hong Kong and US campaign for them.

Although there have been numerous strikes in EPZs, few of them involve themselves in any organizing effort even when their action succeeded in forcing concession from the management. Strikes break out spontaneously and then end abruptly after repression or some concession from the management. It is because these rural migrants have little concept about trade union, and their way of thinking are still basically peasants thinking: very individualistic, lacking of collective identity as workers, and less educated than city folks. The combination of all of the above hamper their ability for long term organizing.

Uniden: the first conscious effort of organizing?

It is in this circumstances, which makes the Uniden case more significant. The Uniden is a Japanese electronic firm, which operated in China since 1987. It is a big company with 12,000 workers. Basic monthly salary for common workers was 480 RMB, which is hardly enough for survival. In order to get 800 RMB, workers have to work over time up to 12 hours a day. Such low wages had always been the chief grievance. Another complaint was bad food provided by plant canteen. On 10th December 2004, bad food and probably other grievances finally triggered off a big strike. One of the activists wrote: ‘in the morning when we went to work we all got a handbill inside our lockers. We then all understand that something is going to happen. And then at 4pm workers started walking out from the assembly line. Just imagine how it looks like when 10,000 workers gathered together. ….If it is not that things has gone far beyond their physical endurance, these women in their teens would not turn out but rather keep on working like robots.’ (posted on Internet)

Since then until April 2005, five strikes had already been organized. Yes, they were organized, not spontaneously sprung up. Indeed, workers in Uniden did something very rare among EPZs workers. They called for the founding of trade unions. A preparatory committee for trade union has been founded and functioned. The reason for this was chiefly the fact that it was the middle ranking technicians and skilled workers who had been in the forefront in the organizing effort. And these people probably mainly came from cities. They circulated handbills among fellow workers, paced their demands and reports on the Internet, a skill which rural migrant workers largely unfamiliar with. Common rural migrant workers may have many grievances, but have little concept about trade union. Our interview with Uniden workers confirmed this. It was the layer of technicians and more skilled workers who gave leadership and a more conscious direction to common workers. What makes Uniden case special, then, is that the middle ranking technician and skilled workers united with rural migrants workers, with the former acting as leaders. This was in contrast to the Stella case where common workers simply rioted without any serious leadership, not even very clear demands. And it seems no technicians and skilled workers ever play any leading role, although they may have took part in it. Left to their own, migrant workers protests tend to be more spontaneous and short lived. Even in cases where some migrant workers raised some demands, they tended to be quite narrow and targeted only the specific things which particular workers concerned, with little awareness as to make demands more general so as to encompass all workers and make solidarity work.

However, the demands of the Uniden workers were much more clearly and worth reading:

1 Basic wages should be in line with the minimum wages as stipulated by law; 2 The company must pay for workers’ basic insurance as stipulated by law; 3 Women workers enjoy one month maternity leave; 4 Compensation for over time should be 150-300% of basic wages; 5 No compulsory over time as stipulated by law; 6 Workers shall set up their own trade union; 7 No deduction of wages when workers take sick leave; 8 Food and housing allowances; 9 Increase wages according to seniority.

On 20 April 2005, Uniden workers struck again, this time they took the chance of the then anti-Japanese movement. Given the general sentiment at the time, the strike soon turn more radical, not only the right to trade union was raised again, during actions some windows were smashed as well. The strike soon faced police’s repression, as it was in the past 4 strikes, with leaders arrested, jailed, or sacked. The Washington Post reported a woman worker as saying: ‘Some officials from local labour department told us we had to cooperate, or else investors may withdraw and move to somewhere else and we will be thrown out of jobs.’

Will the threat deter workers from protesting in the future? We need to wait and see. But back in December 2004, when the first strike occurred, a woman worker was reported saying: ‘If we were men, there would have been a strike long time ago. Women are easier to bully, but we have hearts of steel.’ (New York Times, 16, Dec 2004)

As usual, there are still many details we simply do not know, and readers have to make allowance of some of the details reported here, since under severe censorship it is extremely hard to verify facts. We welcome any correction from reliable sources. Still, from different sources we can more or less figure out the general outline of the case, that a more conscious effort of organizing has been taken. There are of course numerous questions not yet been answered: why technicians in other cases had not taken leadership as the Uniden technicians had done? Is the fact that Uniden being Japanese owned a factor as well? What are the other factors? Is Uniden a special case? Finally, what are the fates of the jailed workers?


In contrast to SOEs fired workers, EPZs workers are badly needed by companies, who are suffering from lacking of labour. This difference makes EPZs workers occupy a more advantage position than SOEs workers. Given that wages of EPZs workers had practically went down for the past 15 years, and conditions are worse than sweat shops in Indonesia, for instance, it is probable that there may be more workers struggle from this new working class in the years ahead. Still, it is a long way to march from spontaneous struggle to organized attempts, given the disadvantages which rural migrants face. The Uniden case may be an example, but it may take much time before this example become more common. And without organizing, despite their heroic and spontaneous struggles, the EPZs workers will get little long term achievement.

However, when accessing the situation one must not only look within workers, but also look beyond them and put the whole China situation into consideration. After more than 20 years of fast growth, China may soon entering a new period, simply because the growth have been sustained only by paying terrible human, social and environmental costs, in addition to paying enormous interest to public debt. It is unsustainable in the long run. Indeed it was already unsustainable in certain sectors. And the CCP new leadership will not be able to really fix all these problems. For they themselves are part of the problems, not any part of the answers. The late former general secretary Zhao Ziyang, in his death bed, prophesized that today’s China, just as the old dynasties had been, will not be capable for self reform and the date for sudden breakdown may not be that far. We may add that, when there is a ruling crisis, a sudden leap of consciousness may happen in this primitive new working class.

It is critical for international labour movement to get prepared for solidarity with Chinese workers rebellion. China has 200 million working class. Working class is far from disappearing. It is only that its distribution across the globe is in constant changes. Only the solidarity between Chinese and foreign working class can the global mad race to the bottom waged by capital be stopped and reversed.

6th August 2005

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