New sites of struggle in a changing China

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In a sobering and detailed analysis, Kevin Lin speaks to Adrian Budd about the resilience of workers’ struggles in China, despite fierce state repression.

The precarious working and living conditions of the millions of migrant labourers who have moved from rural to urban areas of China over recent decades made the development of an organised labour movement harder. Have the circumstances of these workers become more stable? Is their increased stability helping to develop class consciousness?

Chinese workers have not disappointed in rising up against exploitation. The rapid industrialisation and rural-to-urban migration in the last 20 years proved a fertile ground for industrial upheavals on a gigantic scale. But the massive labour struggles at the workplace level still have not consolidated in any organised form in their factories, nor have they cohered into an organised labour movement.

The precarious and transient nature of labour migration, which in part contributed to the willingness of workers to engage in struggles, also militated against the development of a stable and organised labour movement. A decade ago, it was predicted that the second — and by now the third — generation of migrant workers will become more settled into the cities, abandon their rural identities and connections, and form the basis of a stable labour force and movement. While there are many signs of this process, there are also significant countervailing forces against such a development.

First, against hopes of greater reforms to the hukou system of internal labour registration/passports, Chinese state policy has not entirely lifted institutional discrimination against migrants. Some cities, including Beijing and Shenzhen, reinforced exclusion by deliberately and explicitly limiting migrant populations and periodically evicting migrants from the margins of cities. Many migrant workers, sensing the precarity of their urban existence, have chosen to keep their rural household registration instead in order to hold on to their claims to land as a means of subsistence livelihood. So there has not been the degree of stabilisation of migration anticipated.

Second, the global financial crisis set in motion a process of deindustrialisation in southern China that destabilised working class formation. The Chinese state, which rescued the export economy during the crisis and ensured no massive unemployment, is determined to move away from the low-cost export model and upgrade its manufacturing industry by encouraging low-skilled jobs to move inland or out of China, and investing heavily in subsidies to manufacturing automation. Meanwhile, the rise of the service sector has absorbed many migrant workers escaping from the drudgery of industrial employment, and reconfigured the landscape of the labour movement.

Third, the state has significantly increased its capacity to respond to and quell labour disputes and monitor and harass labour activists. In the context of a generalised narrowing of political space under Xi Jinping, this has restricted the conditions within which labour can organise. Nonetheless, workers and labour activists have developed their networks, and worker centres like those in Guangzhou and Shenzhen have not only transmitted organising experience but also begun to support workers’ collective actions. It was against this background that the Chinese state intervened to criminalise labour activism in 2015.

The struggle at Jasic Technology Co last summer raised hopes of an upturn in struggle, particularly given the emerging links between radical students and Jasic and other workers. Can you assess the impact of the Jasic dispute a year on?

The Jasic labour struggle (not a strike, as no strike happened), which started as a unionisation drive against abusive managerial practices, took place at a time of class struggle downturn among manufacturing workers in southern China. Although China’s burgeoning service sector, which is often broadly defined to include teachers and taxi drivers, has seen an upturn in strike and protest activities for some years now, the level of workers’ struggle in the manufacturing sector has not advanced and might have retreated. The year 2015, particularly December’s major crackdown on labour activism, marked the slowdown in the intensity of labour struggle.

Jasic therefore happened at a time when massive, prolonged workers’ struggle was already declining in places like Shenzhen, and when worker centres had been more restricted and weaker. The Chinese state had already withdrawn support for workers’ unionising and collective bargaining, so the political space for allowing a labour dispute to develop into a serious struggle was almost non-existent. The prospect of the Jasic case to inspire an upturn in struggle was already very slim. However, the intensity of repression that followed caught everyone by surprise.

The Jasic case is significant both for what it accomplished and what it failed to accomplish. It has done what no other recent labour dispute has accomplished, mobilising and forging a cross-class alliance, in this case a student-worker alliance, even if on a small scale. It thereby turned a labour struggle into a political struggle and generated a leftist and class discourse which challenges the state monopoly of Marxism.

However, it didn’t lead to any upturn in workers’ struggle elsewhere, but perhaps it should not have been expected to. Each of these impacts should be assessed on their own merit, and some have been severely criticised by other labour activists. But any assessment now of the Jasic case is inevitably shaped and overshadowed by the scale of repression that it precipitated.

Some writers have noted tensions within the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), long used as an arm of the state to police workers. You have noted elsewhere that supporters of the Jasic workers gained some influence within ACFTU district committees, but you have also written that the ACFTU has promoted collective bargaining in order to resolve and pre-empt strikes. What are the possibilities for the emergence of a more independent trade unionism, either within or outside the ACFTU?

The ACFTU is an extension of the party-state. Its leaders are party-state cadres, and it has no political autonomy independent of the party-state. It is under pressure to make itself useful and relevant to the party-state by maintaining industrial peace. For more than a decade, the ACFTU was given some latitude and at times encouragement by the state to experiment with local union reforms, such as providing legal services to workers, unionising workplaces, organising union elections in select workplaces and supervising the negotiation of collective contracts. In practice, the results have been highly uneven and for the most part look better on paper than in reality.

The more liberal atmosphere in Guangdong province in the late 2000s and early 2010s gave rise to some relatively serious attempts at reform under a sympathetic union leadership. This also created some space for labour activists to manoeuvre. In truth, in a period of intense labour struggle state repression was not a very desirable option, so there were pressures and incentives for the ACFTU to take a proactive and prominent role.

By the mid-2010s, however, most of the more serious experiments began to lose political support at the elite level, for they were not very successful at pre-empting labour unrest and might have encouraged more activism with their tolerant attitude.

One lesser known legacy of the union reforms in Shenzhen is the so-called “professionalisation of union cadres”. Because of the lack of union staff with the capacity and interest to support workers, college graduates were recruited into the unions to deal with labour disputes.

This has included students who may or may not be radical but are definitively pro-labour, and some of them are among the district level union cadres who supported the Jasic unionisation drive and were later detained. However, this “professionalisation” never extended to the union leadership, which has stayed very conservative. In the aftermath of Jasic, the ACFTU will be on guard against the development of such a layer of union cadres with some independence, and the Chinese state will similarly be even more on guard against independent labour organisations.

After Jasic there has been a crackdown on labour militants and on labour NGOs, particularly in the major manufacturing centres of the south. This follows the earlier crackdown on feminist networks and labour lawyers who had helped train workers as local labour representatives and negotiators. This earlier crackdown seems to have been successful in limiting labour militancy after 2015. Why has there been a crackdown now, including against labour activists not involved in the dispute? How significant is it to the future development of the labour movement?

The crackdown in 2015 was focused mostly on a loose network of worker centres, although other student groups and activists were also forced to stop their activities. It was targeted at the formation of a loose network, despite there being frictions, and hence limited cooperation, between the worker centres. It was also targeted at their increasing ability to intervene in strike activity on the side of workers against the intervention of the government and the ACFTU. Although some did continue their work after 2015, the crackdown seriously limited the capacity and willingness of the remaining worker centres to support workers’ collective actions.

The Jasic labour struggle triggered a crackdown on an entirely different network. This is the network of activists and student radicals mostly from China’s elite universities, who are organised through the Marxist study groups on university campuses around the country. The state is not unaware of this network and its activities, but has largely tolerated them and only occasionally harassed and interfered with their work.

In late 2017, the state had already rounded up a number of students who were running a campus reading group. But their demonstration of discipline and overtly political stance during the Jasic struggle was extremely alarming to the Chinese state. It is largely this network that the Chinese state was uprooting this time.

The almost unprecedented repression since August last year has swept up more than 100 workers, activists and student supporters. In a significant change, the repression against labour has become more pre-emptive. It is targeted on people who may be in a position to support workers and amplify their struggles in the future, rather than only those directly connected with Jasic or any other recent labour dispute. It therefore has a much wider stifling impact on activism than first anticipated.

This is the result of heightened sensitivity to the potential of labour unrest at a time of economic uncertainty, exacerbated by the geopolitical rivalry with the United States, which could very well provoke a crisis of legitimacy. As I have written elsewhere, there is “an increasing sense of panic and crisis on the part of the Chinese party-state, which anticipates the possibility of labour and other social unrest arising from the economic downturn”.

How confident are you in your argument that, despite the crackdown, “workers will undoubtedly continue to organise autonomously”? Is there any evidence that they are doing so?

Chinese workers’ struggle has never depended on the support of external activists and organisations. In the last two decades they have always organised autonomously, and this will not be changed by the crackdown, severe as it is.
However, labour struggle may be shifting both in industry and between regions. Manufacturing will be less an epicentre of strikes, and may be overtaken by services and logistics. For instance, prior to Jasic, unaided by any worker centres, truck drivers and construction crane operators separately organised days-long, national strikes. Teachers and sanitation workers, too, have organised on their own in recent years.

Finally, the tech worker online protest, 996:ICU, although not a workplace-based dispute or strike, is a sign that we need to pay attention not only to industrial workers and factory-based strikes — though industrial struggle will surely continue, increasingly in inland provinces away from the coastal regions — but also to other forms of workers’ struggles that are emerging in China.

Kevin Lin is an activist and researcher on China’s labour movement and works to build international labour solidarity. He co-edits the open-access Made in China journal on labour and rights in China