Voices of workers' resistance in China

China’s rise to become the world’s second industrial power over the last twenty-five years has been made possible by the largest migration in human history. More than 270 million former peasants now work in China’s towns and cities, making up over one-third of the urban working class and the overwhelming majority of those working in China’s exporting industries.1

Many accounts of China’s growth have pictured its workers as an inexhaustible army of passive, cheap labor, but this is wrong on both counts. As early as 2004, some regions were reporting shortages of labor as migrants either moved to higher-paying areas or back to their home villages. And from the 1990s onward, workers have shown themselves ready to strike, demonstrate, and take other militant action in defense of wages and conditions. 

There is now a substantial literature about the growing militancy of the migrant workforce,2 but this consists almost entirely of studies from the outside.3China on Strike is a genuine first—accounts of

strikes and other forms of resistance in the workers’ own words. As such it’s a necessary addition to every socialist’s library, not just for what it tells us about China but also what it tells us about the dynamics of struggle more generally. 

The book focuses solely on factory workers in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province, interviewed between 2010 and 2012. While this reflects the largest single concentration of migrant workers, it is only a minority of the total migrant workforce. But this region was for many years the engine of China’s export growth, and has a much higher strike frequency than elsewhere, so it is rich in history and experience, which the book brings wonderfully to life.4

The book is organized by three major types of disputes—around closures, against wage cuts, and for higher wages—with the majority of cases concerning fighting wage cuts, for the simple reason that such cuts trigger more disputes than any other. In each section the editors try to draw out general lessons about why strikes break out, and how they win or lose. So in the section on factory closures, there’s a useful guide to signs that employers are preparing for closure.

Rather than simply repeating those lessons, I want this review to highlight a number of aspects that are common to all these struggles.

The first is the liberating nature of strikes in China. With no unions, it’s almost impossible to organize strikes, although some interviewees do talk about leaflets, and it would have been interesting to know more about how those were produced. Most walkouts are thus quite spontaneous, but workers can usually count on others following. As one striker recounts:

Other workers saw them blocking the gate and stood there watching. It seemed really fun and I thought, “If they don’t go to work, I won’t go to work.” After all, I hadn’t had a break for such a long time.

In another factory, “As soon as they heard the word ‘strike,’ whoosh, they came running down the stairs.” That sense of fun and release is, however, attenuated by responsibility among the instigators. As noted of one woman who had led several strikes, “As a strike leader she was very angry. When she just joined the strike she was having more fun and was happier.” And another reflected, in a phrase that will resonate with everyone who’s ever been a union representative or steward: “I didn’t know too much before, so I was brave. Now I know more, but I’m afraid of more things too.”

The second is the role of women. One-third of all migrant workers are women, but in the Pearl River Delta that figure is much higher, and women have been at the forefront of battles, in particular when facing the cops:

The male strike leaders were consciously pushed to the core or the back of the crowd, while female workers stood in the periphery or the front. Many female workers who used to be docile and obedient on the job became very brave and militant; they stood in the front to protect the male strikers. This strategy emerged from recurrent strikes in Shenzhen during this time. Workers were aware that male workers were more likely to be arrested if they confronted the police, while female workers were relatively safe given that police would not dare touch them.

Around half of the narrators and interviewees are women, and their accounts of activism give a sense of the profound shift in women’s lives that the migration experience has produced.5 In a sense it’s heartening to see that shift taken for granted as the natural order of things, but it would have been useful to have some more explicit analysis of exactly what has and has not changed. Sexism is still very much a feature of factory life, with interviewees noting cases of sexual harassment, but at the same time expectations have changed greatly. That’s highlighted by an offhand remark from one (northern) male interviewee complaining that, “Girls from the south don’t have their own mind. What their father says is all that counts.”

The third aspect is the question of organization. Workers in China have won in practice the right to strike, and there’s a fascinating section on the evolution of strikes and strike tactics over time that shows how this has come about. But independent union organization is still strictly forbidden, with the government recently clamping down on a number of labor NGOs that have helped workers organize.6

As a number of accounts in this volume demonstrate, what that means is that while workers can fight and win some if not all of their demands, once they are back at work it is relatively easy for management to pick off the strike leaders and to slowly claw back some gains. This is a huge barrier to the development of a workers’ movement, and one of the reasons why the current level of strikes doesn’t pose more of a threat to China’s rulers. At the same time, however, it also doesn’t deter workers from fighting, and one of the major reasons for this is the existence (for most of the period under discussion) of effectively full employment. 

One interviewee tells of working in twenty different factories in six years—and leading strikes at three of them! Another says that the longest he had ever stayed at a job was three years (which qualified him as an “old worker” in that factory). And tellingly a number of workers talk about the turnover rate increasing in their factory after successful strikes. None speak of long periods of unemployment, nor of victimization. Again, it would have been useful to have some reflection on this from the editors.

At a strategic level, the current balance of class forces can seem deadlocked—the government can’t break workers’ willingness to fight, while the lack of organization means that strikes don’t move beyond winning individual battles against individual employers.7 As this collection makes plain, however, at the shop-floor level there is anything but stasis, and even in the current economic downturn it is workers rather than the government who are setting the pace. The editors are careful not to make rash predictions, but their conclusion nicely balances the reality of workers’ organizational fragmentation with the possibility to transcend that in struggle: 

Even if workers have sometimes been successful in particular strikes, Chinese migrant workers still face a rigidly unequal citizenship regime, great precarity in all spheres of life, and an exclusionary and repressive political system. But if political power will be necessary to successfully counter these trends, as it certainly will, then worker mobilization must serve as the foundation. There is every reason to believe that this will be as true outside China as it is inside.

  1. The China Labour Bulletin has useful facts and figures here. See “Migrant Workers and Their Children,” n.d., http://www.clb.org.hk/content/migrant-workers-and-their-children
  2. I reviewed a number of these in “China’s Changing Working Class,” ISR 95, Winter 2014–15, http://isreview.org/issue/95/chinas-changing-working-class.
  3. One important exception is Pun Ngai, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), based in part on the author’s experience of working in an exporting factory. 
  4. See China Labour Bulletin’s invaluable strike map, at http://maps.clb.org.hk/strikes/en.
  5. Pun Ngai (note 3) documents this well, as does Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China (New York: Picador, 2010).
  6. See, for instance, “Labor Activist Zhu Xiaomei Released after Two Months in Detention,” China Labor Bulletin, February 4, 2016, http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/labour-...
  7. Though a recent report from China Labor Bulletin on teachers’ strike activity shows a rather different pattern. See “China’s Teachers: The Unsung Heroes of the Workers’ Movement,” China Labor Bulletin, October 5, 2016, http://www.clb.org.hk/content/china%E2%80%99s-teachers-unsung-heroes-workers%E2%80%99-movement

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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