Striking back in the “world’s factory”

Issue: 153

Rebecca Townesend

A review of Hao Ren, Eli Friedman and Zhongjin Li (editors), China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance (Haymarket, 2016),£15.99

China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance is an exciting and illuminating book focused on the labour struggles waged by Chinese migrant workers—“the 270 million people who have left the countryside to work in the city” in Guangdong Province’s Pearl River Delta.

The method and intent behind this volume will be of interest to readers of International Socialism. The editor, Hao Ren, started working for an NGO in Guangdong Province in 2009 but left in 2010 and started working in various factories. She developed relationships with some “Marxist-oriented university students who had also gone to work in factories” (pxi). These activists carried out interviews with workers “with the specific aim of trying to establish a more systematic understanding of the causes, processes, and outcomes of strikes” (pxi). The researchers were keen not merely to understand and document but also to influence. “The accounts in this volume therefore serve as a sort of instruction manual for other workers considering direct action as a means to counter capital’s rule”, says Ren (pxii). This is one of the most interesting aspects of this book; it is “live”, and wants to draw on other experiences so workers can learn from them and develop and deepen struggles. In the conclusion of an introductory chapter about struggles against factory closures it states: “In reality, most often, workers have been far too weak to prevent the losses brought about by factory closures, yet it is urgent that we gather the related experiences of workers’ struggles and spread them to the best of our ability” (p32).

Much of the book is made up of case studies based on research conducted between 2009 and 2011, in some cases relating to disputes going back many years. But the English edition includes a preface and a postscript to help bring the reader up to date. The overriding conclusion to be drawn from this is that worker unrest in China persists, is spreading, and “workers in China continue to walk off the job every day” (p224).

The examples of strikes have been sorted into three main categories: strikes against factory closures, those against wage cuts and those for wage rises. However, within the case studies multiple other issues are revealed; for example, related to bad food, poor living conditions and health and safety.

The case studies vary in how engaging they are, but generally they are excellent and dense with an astonishing amount of detail. For example, the researchers interviewed Xiao Lan, who was 16 when she left home to find work and became involved in a 2002 strike in an electronics factory. The issues for workers included overtime, challenging relationships with management, lack of wage rises and poor living conditions. The study details the limited build-up to the strike (a leaflet was produced listing grievances but there was no detailed plan of action in advance), the strike day itself, an attempted march to the labour bureau, negotiations and outcomes (the employers offered a wage increase but it was offset by an attack on other benefits). Many of the case studies include space for the interviewee to offer their views on the experience.

This level of attention into the mechanics of a strike and insights into how they affect participants is very interesting. The writers of this book do not attempt to gloss over the difficulties workers in China face in terms of organising. Chinese workers face multiple challenges; they are often “unable to form durable organisations” (pxiv). The case studies reflect these obstacles to organising and other challenges, such as police brutality. Although there are examples of workers winning improvements this by no means is always the case.

This volume also includes a fascinating chapter reviewing labour struggles in China from the early 1990s onwards. The postscript is brief but gives some insight into more recent industrial unrest. For example, there was a significant and substantial strike at the Yue Yuen shoe factory in the spring of 2014 in which the bulk of the 40,000 strong workforce took part. The authors suggest this strike was particularly significant because of its central demand: “for the employer to address years of unpaid pensions”. This is considered important because “it demonstrated a maturation of worker demands beyond just wages” (p222). The authors also document some unrest among state sector workers such as in 2012 when workers in the partly state-owned FAW-GM Hongta Automobile factory struck “over concerns about the selling off of state assets” (p222).

Other recent developments include the growing participation of “students, intellectuals and allies in civil society” (p223). In mid to late 2014 a strike of almost 200 street cleaners at the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center saw “the most significant instance of student involvement in worker strikes in recent years” (p223).

The examples in the book demonstrate over and over that “direct confrontation at the point of production is more effective than nearly any other channel available to Chinese workers” (pxiii).

This volume is also an important corrective to stereotypes of Chinese workers in some media “as complete victims, unable to conjure any resistance to the overbearing power of transnational capital and a deeply authoritarian Communist Party” (pxiii).

While the role of the Communist Party is not a major theme of the book, there are references throughout to official union structures and to how the government and local bureaucracies deal with labour unrest. In the section on wage increases it is noted that: “recently, governments have taken efforts to urge official unions to engage in rights protection and become a qualified intermediary” (p186). The authors recognise the “looming threat to the capitalist ruling structure” that workers’ struggles represent and also note a shift on the part of the ruling class towards trying to appease workers: “while labour repression is still widely seen, it has become increasingly indispensable for the ruling class to discipline, pacify, restrict and contain this struggle” (p186).

China on Strike concludes with this: “Those of us outside China would do well to take inspiration from the world’s largest and most restive working class” (p224), and this volume certainly succeeds in informing and inspiring. The editors of the English edition state in the introduction that: “It is hardly debatable that China represents the future of global capitalism, but…that it is also the future of the labour movement” (pix). Trade unionists and socialists should look forward to future publications from the perspectives of workers as the labour movement in China continues to develop.

Rebecca Townesend is a socialist and activist based in Leeds.