China on Strike

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Anyone who is feeling a little demoralised and frustrated by the lack of strikes in the UK should add this book to their Christmas list, and then make sure they take some time out to read it.

Everyone knows about the booming Chinese economy, and many people know about the horrendous working conditions of those who have migrated from the countryside to the cities. There are two responses to alienating working conditions. One is the individual response which at best is walking out and at worst committing suicide.

In 2010 Radio 4 reported on the number of Chinese workers throwing themselves off the roof at the Foxconn Factory in Shenzhen. The reports were heartbreaking — young people who saw no future. China on Strike tells another story. It describes in the words of the migrant workers themselves how they have organised against poor conditions.

These are not only the stories of the collective, but also a rough guide to how you organise strikes when there is no official union and in a place where the state spends more money on internal security than it does on defence. It should give everyone hope that, despite the state censorship and the repressive regime, a strike which started over insects being found in the food in the staff canteen led to strikers building road blocks and battling with the police. Police locked 2,000 workers in their dormitories while 400 workers dumped rotten food on the floor.

The strike was settled within days with a pay rise of 22 to 25 yuan (£2.80 to £3.20) a day; the working month reduced from 26 to 22 days; and the added bonus that any person who found an insect in their food could claim back 50 yuan (£4.20).

The message that is shouted loud and proud throughout this book is that the unorganised can get very organised, very quickly. What is particularly inspirational is the role of migrant women workers, who are not only an essential part of these struggles but are in many cases taking a leading role.

The Chinese ruling class is continuing down the repressive route, but despite this the strikes continue to rise (see maps.clb.org.hk/strikes/en). The book finishes with a report of the Yue Yuen shoe factory strike provoked by the company moving production to Vietnam. If the book had been written a few months later, it could have reported that strikes hit the Vietnam factory in April of last year.

As the book concludes: “Workers in China continue to walk off the job every day… Those of us outside China would do well to take inspiration from the world’s largest and most restive working class.”