CHINA: Behind the protest figures

Issue 

BY EVA CHENG

Hundreds of workers in Beijing and Shanxi province staged protests in August, seeking job security and payment of unpaid wages, while 10,000 miners in Jilin province blocked a major train line in July.

The Beijing workers alleged official corruption and unfair compensation when their firm was relocated to another province, while 400 Shanxi workers occupied a main road for 11 hours for wages which haven't been paid for as long as five years. Meanwhile, the Jilin miners, who were fighting for up to 30 months of overdue wages and pension, were greeted by 500 riot police.

These actions are only the latest of a tiny fraction of workers' actions, the details of which have leaked out of China, often with much delay.

Staffed by Lu Siqing, a former labour activist from China with extensive connections, the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy has in recent years been an important source of largely reliable workers' struggle news from China. It reported 60,000 workers' protests in China in 1998 and 100,000 in 1999.

But recently, the labour ministry revealed that, in fact, more than 120,000 "labour disputes" had taken place in 1999 while the Public Security Bureau, which lumped strikes and demonstrations together, said 200,000 such actions took place in 1998.

Notwithstanding variation in statistical categories, these figures undoubtedly reflect the enormous tension that's brewing in the country, as workers bear the brunt of Beijing's capitalist restoration push which has slashed their entitlements, left wages long unpaid or even deprived them of a job. Corruption by officials is also a common spark for militant actions.

According to a recent analysis by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), the Hong Kong-based magazine edited by exiled China activist Han Dongfang, while bigger actions did happen, such as that by miners who launched a 20,000-strong protest and took over a town in Liaoning province in 1999, most protest actions rarely involved more than 300 participants or lasted more than a few days.

Most actions are defensive in nature, CLB observed, most often prompted by the delay in the issuance of workers' starvation-level entitlements when their firms lapsed into difficulties, a common occurrence in recent years. When the firms failed to pay, workers directed their demands to the local government — which explained, said CLB, frequent demonstrations by retirees and laid-off workers at local labour bureaus.

Attempts to organise the workers did exist, said CLB, but no attempts to legally register a workers' organisation have been successful. Referring to three such known attempts (for a Free Labour Union of China in 1992, the League for the Protection of the Rights of the Working People and the Hired-hand Workers Federation, Shenzhen, in 1994), CLB said while these initiatives were significant politically, they involved only a tiny number of people, apparently unconnected, and have all landed their organisers in jail.

While CLB believes that this lack of linkages was due more to political repression than design, it adds to activists' political isolation and the difficulty in forging a united struggle.

More recently in Hunan province, Zhang Shanguang, a labour activist since 1989, had been at the forefront of organising laid-off workers and attempted to register a local workers' organisation. The attempt came shortly after Beijing's signing of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The authorities responded by throwing him into jail. While no stranger to being jailed for his political activities, Zhang now faces 10 years' in prison for being "a threat to national security".

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