The Washington Post reported in January this year that unemployment is the highest now since the CCP took power in 1949.
Government figures of urban joblessness stand at 18 million, and that is without counting joblessness among the 160 million urban-based migrant workers. The figures are most likely double this in the countryside.
“Mass incidents” (defined as a strike, demonstration, blockade, or another public unrest involving over one hundred people) were estimated at 127,467 in 2008 (a substantial increase on the last officially released figure of 87,000 in 2005). If the trend from the first three months of this year has continued (58,000 mass incidents) then class struggle in China is reaching a critical moment.
There are still a few people/groups on the left who claim that the Chinese state is in some way socialist — a “deformed workers’ state”. They effectively smear the name and cause of socialism and disrespect the brave struggles of ordinary Chinese workers and people striving for labour and democratic rights, struggles which have intensified since the economic reforms starting in the 1980s.
From 1979 an “opening and reform” headed by Deng Xiaoping saw the marrying of the rhetoric and bureaucracy of a Stalinist state with global capitalism. (In the 1980s this was marked by the Special Economic Zones set-up in coastal southern China). In Deng’s words, “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”.
The contemporary period of opening and reform is, crudely put, more of a top-down economic, rather than a top-down political, shift. Under Deng’s reign, the Chinese Communist Party’s clampdown on the Democracy Wall movement (which, for many, was a way of coming to terms with the pain caused by the Cultural Revolution), and brutal suppression of the revolutionary uprising led by the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989, was a continued commitment to the iron fist of the party alongside the party’s embrace of profits. Profits generated by inviting global capital to exploit workers in China.
No matter what CCP leadership there has been, workers in China sell their labour power in exchange for a wage. Post-1949 they sold this commodity to the bureaucratic collectivist class of the Chinese state, but most recently to a distinct mix of global capital and various layers of this state (take, for example, the implicit fact that all businesses pay guanxi or “protection money” to the police).
The Hong Kong based campaign for free trade unions in China, China Labour Bulletin, has recorded a significant upturn in workers struggles in the country since 2007, and on issues ranging from the difficultly and cost of obtaining medical treatment, rising prices, and the excessive income gap.
China Labour Bulletin describes the situation since 2007: “Workers took matters into their own hands. Bypassing the largely ineffectual official trade union, they used public protest as a means of forcing local governments to intercede on their behalf. And, in many cases, workers were successful.
Previously, disputes were mostly related to clear-cut violations of labour rights, such as the non-payment of wages, overtime and benefits, but in the last two years collective interest-based disputes have come to the fore, with workers seeking higher wages and better working conditions, and protesting at arbitrary changes in their employment status and pay scales.
One of the major causes of discontent was, for example, attempts by managements to circumvent the new Labour Contract Law by forcing employees to relinquish long-term contracts and rejoin the company on short-term contracts or as temporary labour.
In China there is only one legal trade union — i.e. the one approved by the state — the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Increasingly workers are recognising the irrelevance of ACFTU, and the need for their own fighting, independent, democratically-accountable trade union bodies.
In April this year several hundred workers in Xi’an set up the Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress to monitor the restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and report corruption and abuses of power.
In July and August this year China Labour Bulletin reported a wave of strikes relating to the ongoing privatisation of SOEs. These protests forced a delay in the privatisation of two iron and steel plants.
More recently, several thousand coalminers at Hunan went on strike in protest of management attempts to force workers to sign compensation agreements that took no account of the time they were employed there (many had been at the mines for nearly 30 years).
It is difficult to gauge class struggle in a country where the state so tightly controls information — but it is clear that it is on the rise.