China's Workers And Labor Activists Aren't Going Away Quietly

Chinese workers don’t win every battle for better working conditions. But they’re not going to give up.
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HONG KONG ― I recently had Mr. Yang, a coal miner from Hunan, the province where the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong was born, on my Radio Free Asia program. He told me that in 2013, the local government closed down the state-owned coal mine where he worked for 12 years. A total of 268 workers were dismissed without any compensation. Mr. Yang, one of the 10 elected worker representatives, said many of his colleagues had lung diseases and an array of crippling injuries ― none of which were work-related, according to their former employer. They were denied compensation and medical care.

Also a few weeks ago, in the northeastern city of Changchun, thousands of Volkswagen contract workers walked off the assembly lines in protest. Their demand: equal pay for equal work. Their claim: they were getting paid as little as half the salary of a full Volkswagen employee.

A demonstration at a plant in Chengdu, Sichuan.
A demonstration at a plant in Chengdu, Sichuan.

When the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s economic reforms in 1979 ― under the slogan “let some people get rich first” ― it was implied that the rest of China would follow suit, improving their livelihoods. It’s been almost four decades and still only a few have benefited. In fact, inequality has risen to such levels that an embarrassingly small segment of the population, including Communist Party cadres, is picking the fruits of economic development.

The party has taken note. During the recent National People’s Congress annual meeting, Premier Li Keqiang prioritized in his report the increase of domestic consumption through higher wages, under “complex and challenging circumstances in China and abroad.”

What are these “challenging circumstances”? The party faces a severe loyalty deficit in its ranks, after years of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign that, though popular among supporters, makes government officials at all levels uneasy about their bookkeeping. Xi may need to rely more on public support instead, but time is not on his side.

Last year, the China Labour Bulletin’s strike map recorded 2,662 worker collective actions. Worker strikes have been on the rise since 2010, when the government stopped issuing official statistics. The strike map gathers information from public sources and probably only reveals the tip of the iceberg of labor unrest in China.

Unlike the roughly 60 million state-owned enterprises’ workers dismissed during the late 1990s and early 2000s, today’s workers won’t just go quietly. The 268 coal miners Mr. Yang represents, the thousands of Volkswagen agency workers and hundreds of millions of other Chinese workers ― they can’t wait any longer and are taking action collectively to claim their fair share.

“Chinese workers no longer fear the authorities, and they know they’re not isolated.”

Last year, 20,000 Walmart workers in several cities in China coordinated their actions to oppose the retail giant’s introduction of a system of flexible working hours. Later in the year, workers in three Coca-Cola bottling plants in different parts of the country also coordinated their protests, despite the distance. In both cases, workers used social media and gained significant support from the public.

In Panyu, in southern China, workers from Taiwanese-owned Lide shoe factory went on strike in mid-2014 and stood their ground for nine months: they demanded compensation for dismissal and payment of arrears in social security. In early 2015, they won ― they got 120 million yuan back, an encouraging example of successful collective bargaining for the benefit of not only the workers but also the government, which seeks to maintain political and social stability.

Chinese workers now know their rights. They don’t win every battle. But they’re not going to give up. They no longer fear the authorities, and they know they’re not isolated; through social media, they see others facing similar struggles. The information genie is out of the bottle, and information means leverage. A decade ago, workers could get five years in prison for organizing a strike. Today, authorities will think twice before making the decision to arrest strike organizers. Repression no longer works as efficiently as in the early days of unregulated economic reform.

“Xi needs to deal with popular dissatisfaction over inequality if he wants to maintain his power.”

In 1976, when China was only just coming out of the Cultural Revolution, people were exhausted after decades of Mao Zedong’s crazy policies. That was what prompted Deng Xiaoping to carry out the economic reforms that brought us to where we are today. Four decades later, people are once again frustrated, this time with the highly unequal distribution of wealth. Xi can no longer pass on the hot potato to the next leader. Only halfway into his tenure, he needs to deal with popular dissatisfaction over inequality if he wants to maintain his power.

In 1976, people were willing to wait for the party to make changes. Today, people realize that they may stay where they are forever, watching a select few get wealthier by the day. Mr. Yang and his colleagues at the mine cannot wait ― to them it’s a matter of life or death. Volkswagen workers don’t want to wait for someone to grant them their fair share ― they are fighting for themselves. Hundreds of millions more workers are ready to do the same.

The party is again at a crossroads. Revisiting the path of military repression would mean political suicide. Whether the leadership likes it or not, the better option may be further opening.

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