Chinese authorities greeted the 25th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square by detaining dozens of activists and lawyers, proving that Beijing continues to be haunted by the specter of those protests a quarter century after they ended. But another, less eye-catching series of detentions and convictions highlights a separate source of concern for the central government: swelling dissatisfaction among workers, analyst Stanley Lubman writes for The Wall Street Journal:
In April, a labor activist in Dongguan, in southern China’s Guangdong Province, was detained by police and accused of “causing a disturbance” for distributing information online about a strike by workers at a local factory. In the same month, a court in Guangzhou convicted 11 security guards for “disturbing public order” following a dispute with their hospital employers.
As workers’ demands for expanded social and economic rights continue to grow, the party-state’s long-standing anxiety over threats to overall “stability maintenance” is bound to increase.
A recent report (pdf) from the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy] sees Chinese workers “emerging as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force,” Lubman notes:
The report notes the relatively recent rise of labor NGOs that provide workers with advice and support. The NGOs train workers in negotiation strategy and techniques, including how to resist pressure from management and local governments report on sexual harassment in factories, advise on collective bargaining and provide legal advice.
As illustrated by an excellent recent study by the University of Michigan’s Mary Gallagher, the growth of the labor movement traces its roots to the beginning of China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the state sector shrank and the private sector swelled, vast numbers of rural citizens left subsistence agriculture to move to factory jobs. The overwhelming majority of these workers lacked education and received no social security; at the same time, a growing number of urban workers were employed without labor contracts.
Writing for The Nation, analyst Michelle Chen observes that the logic of the gradualist, legalistic approach to labor empowerment is appealing. Han Dongfang, a worker who protested at Tiananmen and now heads China Labour Bulletin, argued in New Left Review in 2005:
Will you put your trust in gathering tens of thousands of people onto the streets, or in seeking legal help from a lawyer?.… This is what we are trying to do—to solve existing social problems through existing legal systems. In a sense, you could call it a cultural project: encouraging people to trust in peaceful negotiations. That kind of confidence is needed for a healthier development of the country in the future.
Despite more formal rights, workers remain constrained by anemic enforcement, unresponsive leadership from the management-friendly official union and, generally, labor violations on such an epidemic scale that the fundamental problems can’t be resolved on an individual basis:
The rise of rights consciousness is outgrowing institutional capacity to meet or contain workers’ demands. Workers have more rights on paper—and are more aware of them—than ever before. But in reality they have little leverage in their places of employment, and the protection that their interests receive from the courts and the government is uneven at best. Not surprisingly, worker protests do not look as if they will disappear from Chinese life anytime soon.
But they may yet spread in another direction: as consciousness of labor rights solidifies, higher-ranked workers and even managers have sometimes taken the lead in workplace uprisings, with labor demands that galvanize unrest in the lower ranks. The moments of convergence between upper- and lower-tier employees faintly echoes the brief cross-sector solidarity that protesters displayed at Tiananmen.
The CLB report notes that workers are increasingly conscious of their rights and willing to act against exploitative management, writes Lubman:
In addition, the weakness of the only legal trade union, the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), is a weak tool of the party and usually remains inactive in the face of protests.
The rise of social media and availability of inexpensive smartphones makes it easier for workers to organize and initiate collective action. The CLB report also notes that although protests by factory workers attract the most publicity in the press, more workers’ protests occur outside factories, such as demonstrations by taxi drivers, teachers and sanitation workers.
The report concludes by predicting continued strikes and collective protests that will force more employers to respond to collective demands. While the report emphasizes developments in relatively liberal Guangdong, it predicts that support from civil society organizations, media and the public will expand elsewhere in China. It predicts, too, that local governments will “play a difficult balancing act,” and that pressure will grow on the ACFTU to increase efforts to protect and promote workers’ interests.
Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, is a Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. He is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao” (Stanford University Press, 1999) and editor of “The Evolution of Law Reform in China: An Uncertain Path” (Elgar, 2012).