How workers' power was dismantled in China

March 28, 2022
Disenfranchised book cover

Disenfranchised: The Rise and Fall of Industrial Citizenship in China
By Joel Andreas
Oxford University Press

For four decades following the 1949 Chinese Revolution, most Chinese industrial workers enjoyed job security. Their bosses could not sack them. They had lifetime employment.

The work unit (danwei) system was a product of the revolution. Most urban employees belonged to one. In Disenfranchised, author Joel Andreas writes: “The archetypal industrial work unit was a walled community that included, in addition to production facilities, apartment blocks for workers and their families, childcare centres, schools, medical clinics and recreational facilities...

 “Workers’ children were often able to secure jobs in the work unit in which they grew up, and retirees continued to live in factory apartments, remaining part of the work unit community until the end of their lives.” [p. 1]

Andreas argues that membership in a work unit was a form of “industrial citizenship”. He writes that “secure job tenure enhanced the power of workers”, leading to “a culture of assertiveness”. [p. 18] Workers were often able to influence management decisions. There was “relatively egalitarian” distribution of income, and a “strong collectivist ethic”. [p. 53]

This system has now been dismantled: “Beginning in the mid-1990s, radical market reforms systematically dismantled the work unit system, replacing it with an industrial order in which workers have a much more tenuous relationship with the enterprises that employ them. Tens of millions of workers lost their jobs in the course of industrial restructuring, and those who remained were given limited-term contracts.

“Chinese factories today strive to retain a small number of core employees — management and technical personnel as well as key skilled workers — while hiring most workers on a more casual basis ... A large part of the industrial workforce is now composed of young migrants [from rural areas] who follow shifting employment opportunities and find it increasingly difficult to secure jobs as they get older”. [p. 1]

Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had come to power at the head of a peasant army, it was keen to win the support of urban workers. Andreas writes: “Until 1949, the CCP had been based largely in the countryside, but after it took charge of the cities, it forged strong links with industrial workers ... Party leaders dispatched a small group of cadres, mainly peasant veterans of the civil war, to each factory ... They gradually built a party organization that extended into every workshop. In some enterprises, they were able to build upon small underground organizations created before the party took power, but in most they had to start from scratch.” [p. 27]

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), led by the CCP, mobilised workers to criticise supervisors and managers who had mistreated them. Many bosses were sacked or demoted and replaced by new ones elected by the workers.

“During the 1950s, as factories were converted into industrial work units, employment became much more stable and workers became work unit members,” writes Andreas. “At the same time, compensation improved dramatically as wages steadily increased and a series of welfare benefits were introduced.” [p. 28]

The Party mobilised workers in mass campaigns around issues such as bribery and tax evasion, convening meetings where cadres and worker activists denounced illegal activities, exploitation and abuse of workers, condemning owners for being concerned only about profits, to the detriment of workers’ welfare and production.

“As the movement reached a crescendo,” writes Andreas, “workers held capitalists in their offices for weeks, forcing them to write and rewrite confessions”. [P. 33]

“In the course of these harsh movements, the CCP broke the power and prestige of the old authorities in all factories, public and private ... In private enterprises, although ownership nominally remained in the hands of the capitalist entrepreneurs, they no longer dared contravene the will of the party, and managers and shop-floor supervisors dared not incur the wrath of workers, who now had a powerful new patron.” [P. 34]

The new balance of power in the workplaces meant that the nationalisation of all private enterprises a few years later met with little resistance.

CCP cadres convened staff and workers congresses composed of representatives elected by the workers. They were originally expected to meet twice a month, but this was later reduced to four times a year, and in practice usually met less often.

Most of the time decision-making was tightly controlled by CCP cadres. Andreas writes of “participatory paternalism”. [p. 53] Attempts to make the ACFTU more independent of the party failed.

At times, however, this tight control was relaxed. In 1957 CCP leader Mao Zedong called for more open discussion, saying: “Let a hundred flowers blossom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”. Many intellectuals responded to this invitation, but the policy had little impact amongst industrial workers, and was in any case soon reversed. Many of those who had spoken out were repressed.

In 1966 Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. He called on people to rebel against the authorities in their school or workplace, and encouraged them to form their own organisations autonomous from the Party and to act “under the command of Mao Zedong’s thought”, as a newspaper editorial written by Mao’s supporters said. [p. 101]

Mao justified this policy as a means of combating bureaucratism. While this was a genuine problem, the creation of a movement personally loyal to Mao was not the solution. Mao wanted to use the rebels in his struggle for power against other members of the CCP leadership.

The formation of rebel groups led to conflict within work units throughout the country. Workers became divided between supporters and opponents of their local party leadership.

Andreas writes: “Throughout their brief existence, the rebel organizations’ main purpose was to attack the overbearing control of the party organization in their workplaces. Inspired by Mao’s slogan ‘to rebel is justified’, rebel workers coalesced around a common aspiration to challenge the authority of party officials, which in the past had been unassailable.

“The rebels criticized the privileges enjoyed by leading cadres, and they were particularly eager to condemn their arrogant and domineering behavior and their suppression of criticism and contrary views. They detested the culture of conformism, tutelage and patronage promoted by the party organization, and denounced the ‘slave mentality’ of those who supported the party committee.” [p. 113]

Many other workers, however, supported their local party leadership, which had led them in campaigns that had greatly improved the situation of workers.

Mao used “incendiary rhetoric”, describing those opposed to his ideas as “capitalist roaders”. [p. 101] This contributed to the mistreatment of party leaders, who were often “cruelly humiliated and physically abused” by the rebels. [p. 119]

Violence escalated and spread throughout the country. Eventually the army was brought in to restore order. An uneasy compromise was established, with “rebels” and “conservatives” sharing power.

Mao died in 1976. The post-Mao leadership, headed by Deng Xiaoping, began to introduce market reforms. Initially the changes had only a limited impact on industrial workplaces. Most workers continued to belong to work units and enjoy job security.

For a time, things even improved. But in the second half of the 1980s, the government began to undermine workers’ rights: “By then, the new leadership was intent on introducing more substantial market reforms, including greater differentiation in wages and bonuses and more flexible employment.

“Workers resisted these changes, which violated the egalitarian and collectivist ethos cultivated since the 1950s, and as market reformers endeavored to overcome this resistance, they increasingly came to view participatory institutions and practices as obstacles to their reform agenda.

“Thus, even before the onset of radical industrial restructuring in the mid-1990s, workers’ influence was being steadily diminished as the CCP moved to replace permanent job tenure with contract employment and began to fortify the power of factory directors.” [p. 167-8]

The anti-worker offensive intensified in the 1990s: “In the state sector, between 1993 and 2003, over 50 million workers lost their jobs.” [p. 198] Inequality grew as executive salaries and bonuses rose rapidly, while privatisation created greatly increased opportunities for corruption. China became much more unequal: “In the late 1970s, income distribution in China was among the most egalitarian in the world; today it ranks among the most unequal.” [p. 224]

There was resistance: “Privatization, factory closings and layoffs spurred protests across the country which grew in intensity every year ... Resistance reached a climax in 2001 and 2002 ... Millions of workers across the country occupied factory compounds and blockaded highways, railroad lines and government offices ... At that point the CCP leaders decided to apply the brakes.” [p. 198]

The privatisation drive was slowed down, and the government moved to set up welfare programs, as well as retraining and job placement programs for laid-off workers. For those who remained at work, a new Labor Contract Law was enacted in 2007 to “rein in some of the most abusive hiring practices generated by restructuring”. [p. 199] However, many employers have found ways to get around this law.

In the book’s conclusion, Andreas is cautiously hopeful. There have been “a growing number of protests, strikes and factory occupations”, and workers have won “small but important victories”. [p. 226] He expects that the struggle of workers for control over their conditions of work may lead to a revival of “industrial citizenship” in new forms.


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