IN A sensational victory for Chinese workers and international campaigners, ten young workers (the oldest is 23 years old) in Guangdong province, jailed for protesting against pay cuts and medieval conditions at shoe factories owned by Stella International, were freed on New Year?s Eve.
By Laurence CoatesAt their trials in October and November, the ?Stella Ten? were sentenced to a combined 21 years in prison (three of the ten, minors, received suspended sentences totalling six years). The ten were, according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, “singled out as scapegoats and sentenced to prison terms as a warning to others”.
Five thousand workers, mostly migrants from China?s poor interior, went on strike in April 2004 at two plants belonging to the Taiwanese-owned company that makes shoes for global brands such as Reebok, Nike, Timberland and New Balance. The average monthly wage of these workers was $55 ? less than the retail price of a pair of Reeboks. After deductions for meals, dormitories and other items, workers were left with about $27! According to media reports, the strikers went “briefly wild”, trashing a cafeteria and a computer room and overturning the bosses? car. Months later, police picked out ten ?leaders? who were charged with ?intentional destruction? of property. No charges were pressed against company security guards who beat up some of the workers.
Alongside other groups, the CWI and the website it launched last year, chinaworker.org, organised a campaign of pressure on the Chinese authorities. Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) member of parliament, helped publicise the Stella workers? case internationally when he pressed the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern ? prior to his recent visit to China ? over workers? rights. On 31 December the court in Dongguan city commuted the prison terms to suspended sentences. This retreat is clearly political, under orders from the highest levels of the officially ?communist? regime. It underlines important shifts taking place within Chinese society and the Beijing government.
According to a government report, 3.1 million people took part in strikes, demonstrations and other forms of protest in the month of September 2004. This included 520 demonstrations, 170 of which ?turned violent?, injuring a total of 200 policemen, and a week-long strike by 100,000 miners demanding improved job security and accident compensation. By comparison, the number involved in protests during the whole year of 1998 was 3.5 million. Singapore?s Straits Times pointed out: “The recent riots in several Chinese provinces could well be the harbinger of the widespread social unrest Beijing fears most”.
These movements have embraced all layers of society: workers in the state and private sectors, unemployed and xia gang (laid-off) workers, migrant workers and, not least, China?s vast peasantry.
In Henan and Jiangxi provinces, hundreds of thousands of peasants demonstrated against over-taxation and land seizures. The peasants blocked local government officials from carrying through land confiscation by using “farm machinery, spears, and hunting rifles”, according to the official report. One passage, which must be causing sleepless nights at the leadership compound in Beijing, revealed that in Anhui, Hubei, and Jiangxi provinces, peasant committees put corrupt township and village officials on trial and executed them, echoing the methods of Mao?s armies in the 1940s-50s.
On 28 October, between 50,000 and 100,000 peasants, joined by local students, occupied the Pubugou hydroelectric dam project on the Dadu River in Sichuan province. Carrying banners that demanded ?Down with corrupt officials?, the crowd overpowered police, turned off machinery and occupied the site for several days in protest at their eviction from the fertile river basin to barren, mountainous plots of land. Two villagers and two policemen were reportedly killed in ensuing clashes. According to one report, injured policemen could not be treated at nearby hospitals for fear of reprisals from the local community. President Hu Jintao and his premier Wen Jiabao intervened directly in the Pubugou conflict, stopping work on the dam and telling officials to “listen to the wide-ranging opinions of the masses”.
Beijing responded with the now familiar mix of concessions (sacking the county party secretary and promising improved compensation) and repression (martial law was imposed with the help of 10,000 PLA soldiers). This was just one of five or six ?major incidents? during the final weeks of 2004. On 25 December, a crowd of up to 50,000 migrants in a suburb of Dongguan fought with police, burning four police cars and overturning two ambulances, following the death in police custody of one of their number.
These events have shaken the Beijing regime, which is split over how to deal with the growing unrest. Hu, Wen and the ?fourth generation? leadership are struggling to portray themselves as more humane than their predecessors. They fear that a bloody crackdown ? as in Tiananmen Square in 1989 ? could trigger an explosion in the same way as the Russian tsar?s massacre of workers on 9 January 1905 triggered the first Russian revolution. At this stage, therefore, concessions are on the order of the day. The regime is promoting its softer appendages, encouraging greater press freedom (but not to report on strikes) and ordering the state-controlled trade unions to step up recruitment among tens of millions of non-union, private-sector workers.
The situation of China?s 140 million migrant workers ? the backbone of the manufacturing industry ? is particularly explosive, as the Stella strikes showed. These workers, who send a big part of their wages home to the countryside, suffer racist discrimination, second-class status in regard to social benefits and legal rights, and continual police harassment. This explains why so many major incidents are triggered by police brutality.
Guangdong province ? where one in four inhabitants are migrants ? has been rocked by strikes in recent months. On 7 November, 1,000 workers at Shanlin Technology Appliance Factory in Guangzhou struck for higher overtime pay. The regime-controlled Xinhua news agency reported that the company settled the next day, raising overtime pay rates by one third and granting two days off per month. On 12 November, workers at an electronics factory in Shenzen took the two Hong Kong owners hostage for three days following a two-month wait for their wages. Police took no action other than warning the workers not to harm the couple. On 23 November, hundreds of workers at the Durable electronics plant in Shenzen went on strike over plans to move the factory to Zhuhai with the loss of 3,000 jobs.
A study by the labour ministry last September found that monthly wages in the Pearl River Delta ? Guangdong?s economic powerhouse ? had risen by just 68 yuan in the previous twelve years. If rising prices are factored in, real wages have stagnated or dropped. But as a Korean businessman based in the province said: “Two things have changed in the past year or so. Profit margins have narrowed. But also the eyes of migrant workers have opened”.
The increasing militancy of Chinese workers has been fuelled by rapid economic growth. On the one hand, bosses have tried to cut wages and speed up production to offset soaring prices for oil and other raw materials. On the other hand, export-orientated provinces like Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang are experiencing labour shortages for the first time, which has given workers extra muscle. The once typical queues of migrant job seekers outside factories have dried up, leading local governments to raise minimum wage rates (though these are ignored in two thirds of workplaces) and send teams of recruitment scouts to inland provinces.
This challenges contemporary capitalist myths about the ?docility? of Chinese workers and the ?stability? of China as a place to make profits. As the Washington Post recently warned, these developments raise “questions about China?s long-term future as world headquarters for low-paid outsourcing”.
Another sign of the changing times was the degree of leeway afforded to the Stella workers? defence lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, during their trial. Gao compared workers? conditions today with those under Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s: “What distinguishes the present situation, however, is that in those days the Communist Party stood alongside the workers in their fight against capitalist exploitation, whereas today the Communist Party is fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the cold-blooded capitalists in their struggle against the workers”.
His statement from the trial was circulated in the dormitories among Stella?s 42,000 workers. Despite the landmark victory for the Stella Ten, China still has more union activists in prison than any other country. More information can be found on the chinaworker website, in particular, on the cases of Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang (the ?Liaoyang Two?), jailed for leading huge workers? protests in 2002. Given the rapidly changing situation in China, it is vital that CWI members, especially trade unionists, step up the pressure on the Beijing regime for their release.