China has been the fastest growing major economy in the world for three decades. It is also home to some of the largest, most incendiary, and most under-reported labor struggles of our time. Hao Ren and Fan Gang are two activists in this burgeoning labor movement.
Hao Ren organized with a labor NGO before she started working in factories on the Pearl River Delta. Fan Gang has worked in factories in the Pearl River Delta since he graduated from university. They both organize with workers to take collective action in defense of their rights and income.
Hao Ren co-edited with Eli Friedman and Zhongjin Li the new book, China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance, published by Haymarket Books. Fan Gang also contributed to it. During their speaking tour sponsored by Labor Notes and Haymarket Books, Hao Ren and Fan Gang sat down with Dennis Kosuth, a long-time socialist and labor activist, to discuss their book and their experience of the Chinese workers’ movement.
Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds. How did you get involved with workers’ struggles and decide to write China on Strike?
Hao Ren: When I was in college, I became concerned about poverty in the countryside and conditions migrant workers experienced when they got jobs in the cities. I noticed that they were in terrible circumstances. The farmers and migrant workers were not being paid well and were treated very unequally. So I wanted to do something to help them.
A teacher introduced me to a labor NGO that I went to work for after I graduated in 2000. I went to Guangdong where my job was to visit the farmers and ask about their conditions, and tell them about their legal rights. I did this for a couple of years. The things that the NGO did were limited and they could change very little. But I didn’t have any better way to help at that time.
At the same time, I noticed that there were a lot of strikes going on. Back then the economy was good; the bosses were making a lot of money. The workers had to do extra work but didn’t get paid extra wages. The workers demanded to be paid according to the law but the bosses refused. So the workers went on strike maybe for half a day or a day and would win big pay increases.
One thing I discovered was that urban workers didn’t support these migrant workers’ struggles. They were very divided from them and didn’t know much about their experiences. The newspapers and media never told their stories. I developed a plan to publicize their strikes.
I interviewed the migrant workers about their circumstances, where they came from, what kind of work they did, the relationship between the workers in the factory, and their relationship with their bosses. I focused on their experience of striking. Through these strikes the workers gained an understanding of their own power to win better lives. I compiled all their stories into our book, China on Strike.
Fan Gang: I come from the north where there are lots of factories. I became familiar with the circumstances of factory workers. I am pretty concerned with workers’ welfare. After graduation from college, my friends and I tried to understand and discuss more about the condition of workers and what we could do about it.
One way to do this was to work in factories. I was interested in learning factory technology, so I got a job and at the same time investigated the workers’ situation to learn how workers can better protect their rights. Then we discussed how to visit and talk to the workers. We gathered all this material into the book.
In the book, you highlight the problems of migrant workers. How do they face problems that are different from or the same as other workers?
Hao Ren: The area we discuss in the book is near Hong Kong in Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta. Businesses have rapidly expanded in the area. They’ve built massive industrial zones. Many local people rely on renting land to Hong Kong industry to make money. They don’t work in the factories. Instead, the businesses employ migrant workers from the surrounding areas like Dongguan and Guangzhou.
Before all this expansion, the area was made up of many small villages. With the construction boom, the state and companies knocked down a lot of village structures without compensating local people much for their land. With their land gone, local farmers had no jobs. They found work in jobs like housekeeping and grounds keeping. often at the new universities.
These people are generally conservative. They rely on the village heads and the village councils to get birth certificates and official residence papers so they worry that they will not be able to get what they need if they challenge them. So they don’t risk being militants in their workplaces.
So the activists are the outsiders. Why are they so militant? Because they have no roots in the area. They can move any time. For example, if a Hunan person comes to Guangdong to work, they can move elsewhere if the strike fails or they lose their job. That’s the main reason why the outsiders are more involved in strikes and why the local people are more conservative.
The companies don’t want the migrant workers’ militancy to spread. So they separate local and migrant workers to keep them from cooperating with each other. Their big fear is a united strike of local and migrant workers. Then they would be in real trouble.
What are some of the causes of strikes in China?
Hao Ren: In 2008 most of the whole world went into recession. To stop that from impacting China, the government spent a lot of money to stimulate the Chinese economy. That sustained the boom. During 2009 and 2010 a lot of autoworkers went on strike. They felt that the economy had recovered but companies were not sharing their profits with the workers.
That is the first reason why workers went on strike. The second reason was retirement benefits. If a company moves or shuts down, the workers lose their retirement benefits. That caused more workers to be angry and go on strike to defend their pensions.
Now that the Chinese economy has started to slow, there have been layoffs especially in the coal and steel industry. How has this impacted the workers’ struggles?
Fan Gang: The economy has slowed dramatically, and it doesn’t show signs of returning to the boom of the last couple of decades. For the last five to ten years there were raises for workers, but now layoffs have started. The coal mines were hit hard by the slowdown and layoffs. And there are likely to be even more in the coming year. For the remaining workers, there have been cuts in pay. All of this has caused a new wave of strikes.
China’s wave of strikes over the period of boom and now the slowdown is remarkable. Are workers generalizing their experiences into the need for a common nationwide struggle?
Hao Ren: Not really. Workers are quite divided from one another in different workplaces and regions. There is communication between workers within a factory but there is no communication between workers across factories. So there are strikes in individual factories, but there are no strikes across an industry. We have a strike movement, but we don’t have a generalized union movement.
Fan Gang: There is no broad collective organization of workers, and the tradition of collective action is undeveloped. Therefore it’s hard for workers to unite in a broader struggle.
What do you think about the government-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU)?
Fan Gang: It’s a strange institution. It plays more of a role as a mediator between workers and their bosses than a union. On the one hand, when pressured the ACFTU has helped workers learn their rights. But it has produced few positive results. They do not openly assist the small local unions in strikes. On the other hand, the government tries to use ACFTU to control workers and end strikes.
Hao Ren: The government wants to use the ACFTU to overcome conflicts between companies and workers. So it supports some strikes but not most of them. Workers see the ACFTU as a representative of the government such as a labor department or neighborhood association representative more than as their own organization.
They hope that it will help them resolve their problems. But it won’t. If the union supports the workers and their strikes, which is rare, they will feel that the union is doing a good job. But in general it is more a mediator than a representative of the workers. As such, it’s pretty useless.
China calls itself a socialist government but its workers are exploited. What do you think? Is the government lying?
Fan Gang: I have thought very little of this before and most people around me haven’t either. Everyone is just working and trying to get by. So we have never talked about this issue. Maybe people talk about it in small circles.
Hao Ren: Chinese workers generally don’t talk about politics. It’s not within their scope. Workers can feel tension between themselves and the capitalists and oppression from the capitalists. But there is very little discussion about such bigger questions.
What about the relationship between students and workers? Workers were involved in the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Is there any student involvement or involvement of other organizations in these workers struggles?
Fan Gang: It has been a long time since the Tiananmen struggle. Nowadays students concentrate on their studies; they want to be successful so their reaction to the strikers is very cold. There are almost no groups of students getting involved except a few individuals. The wealthy, the middle class, and the managers are united in opposition to the workers and their strikes.
How do you see your book as contributing to international solidarity between American and Chinese workers?
Hao Ren: We hope this book plays a small part in building connections between workers in China and the rest of the world. We couldn’t publish the book in China itself; the government didn’t allow it. So we published it in the US. We hope it opens a window for the world to see what is happening in China. One purpose of our visit here is to try to understand how American workers win their strikes and bring those lessons back to China.