Friday, 10 January 2014

2014: Militancy and the Chinese Worker


For the first posted item of 2014 there is much to choose from and, as I celebrated in my last item of 2013, it speaks of much to celebrate when investigating the contemporary state of organised labour and the broader resistance displayed by workers internationally.

Of personal interest to me (and written upon in the blog before) has been the consistent rise over the past decade (and perhaps earlier although less reported upon) of militant resistance on the part of Chinese workers which has been monitored and analysed by a variety of well-respected sources.

I’ve been an avid reader of the output of the China Labour Bulletin ( since its inception in the mid-90s and colleagues at the CLB like Han Dongfang (who set up China’s first fully independent trade union the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation (BAWF) at the same of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and was expelled subsequently as a result) has helped to provide bi-partisan insights on the major shifts and trends in the growing forms and types of worker protest.

The importance of China for the future of organised labour globally (and a testament to the importance of the CLB on reporting from an independent workers’ perspective) is evidenced well in an article posted by the CLB last November. This helped provide an insight on how disparate groups of striking workers had come together to consider how the legacy of their action could come to form the basis of a nascent national labour movement.

SACOM (students and scholars against corporate misbehaviour - ) provides an innovative platform to monitor instances of exploitation and abuse on the part of MNCs operating in China. The particular innovation of SACOM is that its output stems in the main from a unique collaboration of an international network of academic advisors and activist students. SACOM has played an exemplary role in shining a light on the outcomes of Apple’s globally outsourced production systems, not least in documenting the extreme and exploitative working practices at Foxconn the major manufacturer of Apple products outside the US. Interestingly also, Foxconn has provided some of the evidence of a burgeoning independent workers’ movement in China.

Follow the SACOM activity/output and read about workers’ demands to create a union at Foxxcon here:
An increasing volume of academic coverage of workers’ movement in China is helping to generate a more accurate sense of how and where mobilisation is taking place and of its long-term implications both in China and globally.

A valuable, free primer (although dating from 2011) has been put together by academics and alumni associated with the Global Labour University (of which Ruskin College is an associate member). This has an introduction by Christoph Scherrer (Kassel University, Berlin) which provides a succinct, clear overview of the edited contents but also a short, sharp summary of how and why the position of workers in the Chinese economy should be of immense interest to any student of trade union and labour studies.

The link for the GLU publication, China’s Labor Question, is here:

In addition to the GLU primer I would encourage those with an interest in Chinese industrial relations and/or the rise of militancy to take the time to review one of the most recent books on the topic, Tim Pringle’s Trade Unions in China: The Challenge of Labour Unrest. Pringle’s book provides a contemporary assessment of the role of the official trade union centre in China, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), and argues that, despite criticism’s of its role as an instrument of the Chinese Party-state, closer scrutiny of recent changes in internal orientation and dynamic are indicative of the influence of increased worker’s spontaneous, independent actions.

Mingwei Liu of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University has written a helpful, short review of the book for as part of Cornell University’s ILRR review series and this is available here:

One of Liu’s criticisms of Pringle’s approach is the relative lack of depth in the case studies he uses to explore changes in industrial relations and judicial practice in China. Although closer, workplace and societal interrogation is provided regularly by sources like SACOM and the CLB, Ju Li’s 2012 article for the Global Labor Journal, Fight Silently: Everyday Resistance in Surviving State Owned Enterprises in Contemporary China, is a rigorous dynamic insight on the experience of workers – and of their everyday resistance to harsh working conditions. Li’s analysis presents a different perspective on the notion that sustained, increased worker militancy will invariable lead to formal mobilisation of workers’ collective grievances (and indeed to the creation of a distinct working class), suggesting instead that individual,  smallscale acts of subordination act as an additional form of disorientation and alienation ironically exacerbating the condition of poor workers under global capitalism.

Less pessimistic than Li, and bringing an innovative perspective on the increasing role of social media as a feature of workers’ resistance, Zhiming Cheng’s 2012 paper The changing pattern of state workers' labour resistance in Shaanxi Province, China. The paper generates a thoughtful typology of phases of resistance in the face of the state’s increased authoritarian controls on the use of the internet and its own use of cyberspace as a means to conduct regime of surveillance and intimidation.

This post provides a snapshot of the range of resources and analysis of the rapidly changing situation in China. This sense of change, and of the increased dynamism of the part of workers’ movements, and of the state’s response is captured well in Cheng’s final paragraph:

During the local state’s attempt to reconcile the contradiction and suppress the dissidence, state workers’ labour action will surge again — probably in a different form — to find out what the new bottom line is and what the new outlets can be. In the future, it will be interesting to examine the new interplays between these parties. For example, how will the workers’ future resistance adaptive to the increasingly constrained online and offline environments after the local state outlawed the Rights Congress and disgraced Zhao? How will the local state’s new counter-actions influence the state workers, Maoists and leftists? And a fundamental question is that how the Party-state copes with more and more conflicts in the existing socio-political framework, especially after then General Secretary of CCP Hu Jintao explicitly dismissed the possibility of either adopting Western-style democracy or returning to the Maoist governance in his farewell speeches at the 18th Party Congress.

Cheng’s paper is available here:

In  Solidarity