Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The ‘Harmonious Society’?

"China On Strike – Narratives of Workers’ Resistance,” edited by Hao Ren, Zohgjin Li and Eli Friedman

If Friedrich Engels was writing “The Condition of the Working Class in China” today he would use this book as some of his original source material.  This is a collection of interviews and some commentary on strikes in the Pearl River Delta around Shanghai, in Guangdong and Shenzhen provinces.  They reveal the actual conditions on the ground for the largest working class in the world.  Most of the strikes described here were from 2003 to 2011.  The authors contend that strikes are now more numerous and have moved into the interior of China.  This is because labor in the Delta has become more active and stronger, so factories there were shut down by capitalists to flee for safer havens. 
Real 'pink collar' workers in China
The conditions here are similar to what Engels described in the 1800s in England.  Rural workers forced into the city to work in factories – turning former peasants into factory laborers.  They then have to deal with forced overtime, bad food, low pay, illegalities, theft of wages, accidents, no unions, an unsympathetic government, police action, beatings, mass firings, hostile business owners and … growing resistance.

The strikes described here have a number of similar characteristics.  The workers telling the stories are mostly ordinary migrant workers, with only a few taking leading roles in strikes.  Most are from poor rural backgrounds forced to go to the city to earn money.  Most workers in these factories are young women, so their treatment is a proletarian feminist issue.  The strikes are mostly defensive and are similar to what happens at Wal-Mart or fast food franchises in the U.S., except more radical.  They involve factories of 30K to factories of 25.  Even one production line in a factory or smaller groups of workers will stop working.  They are mostly spontaneous, unorganized and militant strikes – what in the U.S. we call ‘wildcats.’  The workers block traffic, slow down production, shut off power, refuse to leave the plant or leave and don’t come back.  Sometimes a party or holiday atmosphere prevails.  Physical force is sometimes used in self-defense and bad supervisors are beaten in dark alleys.  The government unions are almost non-existent in these areas.  The police and other state forces are almost uniformly hostile.  Local government agencies like the ‘labor bureaus’ ignore the protests for the most part or urge workers to return to work as their ‘patriotic’ duty.  The media even informed on strikers in one instance, while in others they ignore the demonstrations. 

Workers in these stories did not fear being fired as much because there are so many factories that they could quit and go to another.  Many stories reflect workers going from factory to factory, although there are difficulties as companies will frequently not let them resign! The strikers fear being singled out, so they refuse to promote ‘representatives’ who will either sell them out or be attacked.  So they try to get the companies to negotiate with all of them.

The strikes are many times successful in small or even large ways, proving that shutting down production is what gets results – not filing lawsuits, petitions, arbitration or putting suggestions in a box.  However, no continuing organizations seem to exist.  Independent unions are not formed.  Independent socialist or worker’s organizations seem to be weak to non-existent and the evidence of a ‘left’ in the Chinese CP very elusive.  Yet the experience of the working class grows with each confrontation.  These actions were usually against private capitalist employers from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, even the U.S., but also Chinese capitalists.  Those tall, beautiful glass towers in Hong Kong harbor that tourists love to moon over are the result of labor exploitation just across the water!  The Chinese work stoppages are focused on the very large private factory sector.  The state sector, which had active strikes earlier in the decade, is not portrayed in these strikes, but the authors contend they are also being influenced by these acts of resistance.

Specifics:  Worms or insects in the dormitory or canteen food.  Workers paying for their own required clothing or health care, even due to accidents caused by working conditions.  Paying for hot water in the dormitories.  Frequent wage cuts.  A wage rise accompanied by benefits’ cuts.  Non-payment of wages for months.  Inept or domineering supervisors.  Working forced overtime every day – even up to 17 hours a day.  Factories that shut down without warning, while the bosses flee, equipment is moved and wages go unpaid.  In this latter case, local neighborhood committees or local governments attempt to make up the difference, but usually don’t do it completely.    

Of most significance is the fact that even if some factories have better conditions (usually the high-end sector related to direct U.S. products), they cannot break the overall compact among the capitalist sector, as too high wages or benefits undermines capitalist unity across these Chinese localities. Low wages are the foundation of the development of the modern Chinese working class.  Many of these smaller factories are sub-contractors for the major factories and brands.  As such, the whole sector must control overall conditions or perish. This is the reason no program that only deals unilaterally with Apple products or Nike workers can raise general conditions or even their conditions. 

Of most significance is the role of the bureaucratic ‘workers’ state.  It does not generally kill, shoot, jail, blacklist or outlaw these actions outright, as is done in many low-end capitalist countries like India, South Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, etc. This reflects its contradictory class nature. For instance, Chinese laws on minimum wages or overtime exist to ameliorate conditions for workers, yet they are not enforced by the government. Workers have to enforce them by their own actions.  As mentioned, sometimes stolen wages are recompensed by local governmental agencies or bodies - but not fully. Occasionally the police lay-off peaceful protesters, but this is rare.   

The general purpose of the Chinese state in these geographic areas is to enforce severe labor discipline for the benefit of foreign and local capitalists.  Just the government’s legal treatment of migrant rural workers during this period – the ‘hukou’ system - reflects its own hostility even to the farmer/peasant strata, the former main base of the Chinese CP.  These conditions indicate that the Chinese state is not in the hands of the Chinese working class, but a bureaucratic strata quite clearly separated from it.

This strata must and will be replaced in power by a true political revolution led by the Chinese working class - a class that we see here in action.   This political revolution will allow the development of proletarian political parties, working-class democracy, independent unions, factory and geographic counsels and revolutionary Marxist politics – not some pale imitation. These developments can then spread this revolution beyond the borders of modern China.

Other books on China reviewed below.  Use search box, upper left, with word 'China'. Also a reviews of "Revive the Strike," about U.S. issues, below.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 25, 2016  

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