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Struggles Explode Throughout China
by David Whitehouse
December 22, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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Growing inequality and social displacement in China have fueled a string of protests, riots and strikes since August.

Unlike the 1989 protests centered around Tiananmen Square, which brought out mostly state-employed industrial workers in support of students in the major cities, the current unrest comes from all sectors of the workforce. Peasants in the interior, veteran employees of state enterprises and young workers in the booming coastal “export zones” have all been involved in major confrontations that display a high degree of class solidarity.

The explosions of struggle reflect long-simmering anger at the arrogance of China’s rulers --including the Communist Party bureaucrats who routinely cash in their political clout for personal gain.

In October, according to an account posted to the Web, a tax official in central China’s Sichuan province beat a migrant worker on the street with a pole and broke his leg. When police arrived, they backed up the official.

Within hours, tens of thousands of infuriated workers rallied at government offices in Wangzhou City to demand justice. They broke windows and set police cars on fire. Thousands of police and paramilitary forces used tear gas and rubber bullets in street battles with crowds of workers that ran into the night.

In another central province, Shaanxi, 6,800 workers at a newly privatized textile factory beat back an assault on their livelihoods in a bitter seven-week strike that ended in late October. The new owners sought layoffs, lower wages and elimination of workers’ seniority, benefits and pensions--measures that are typical of the “restructuring” that goes along with the sell-off of state-owned factories.

In response, the workers, mostly women, occupied the factory in September. Authorities sent 1,000 cops to expel the workers, but thousands of supporters held back the police--singing revolutionary songs including the “Internationale.”

In Sichuan, 100,000 farmers protested being evicted from prime farmland because of the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Reports of police repression included 17 deaths, 40 injuries and more than 100 arrests.

Meanwhile, young sweatshop workers in the booming southern coastal province of Guangdong -- who produce export items such as shoes and electronics for wages of $2 a day -- have mounted an unprecedented wave of strikes since the summer.

In the midst of the current unrest, Chinese officials decided December 8 to cancel an international conference on workers’ rights slated for the following week in Beijing.

Since the repression of the 1989 Tiananmen rebellion, in which hundreds of worker militants were killed and thousands arrested, struggles in China have grown in a familiar pattern. The harsh conditions of China’s boom produce widespread anger and contempt for authority, but state repression of the most basic rights keeps the anger bottled up until it explodes.

Workers typically endure 12-hour workdays and six-day weeks, the continual threat of mass layoffs and some the most dangerous working conditions in the world. For example, China produces one-fifth of the world’s coal--but four-fifths of the world’s deaths from mining accidents.

Outside the highest-growth centers along the coast, there is mass unemployment in rural areas and industrial “rust-belt” towns. Official joblessness runs at 4 percent, but Robin Munro of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin puts the real figure as high as 23 percent. Layoffs from state-owned enterprises total 25 million since 1998, says Munro, and only two-thirds of those workers have found new jobs.

President Hu Jintao has announced a final round of privatizations to reduce the number of state-owned enterprises from 190,000 to 190 in the next few years -- which promises new windfalls for investors and Communist Party bosses at the expense of current employees.

In the countryside, where 800 million of China’s 1.3 billion people live, conditions are even more harsh. Peasant families lease land leased from the state, but the plots are less than five acres, so peasants consume 65 percent of what they produce. Meanwhile, the state has withdrawn peasants’ medical benefits and increased taxes for education. In the past decade, as many as 70 million have lost their land to construction of housing, roads, factories and dams, according to the New York Times, and figure is likely to reach 100 million.

This year, the government relaxed apartheid-like restrictions on internal migration, so hundreds of thousands of peasants are fleeing to the cities in search of jobs. According the Far Eastern Economic Review, urbanized peasants are sub-leasing their land to agro-conglomerates, which are stitching together plots to form large-scale cash farms employing landless migrants at less than $2 a day.

The newest parts of the economy continue to boom -- centered mostly in the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian -- and account for a large share of China’s 9 percent overall growth rate. In fact, there is a labor shortage in some of these areas, which helps explain the boldness of Guangdong’s workers in the past six months.

Workers’ strong bargaining position comes at a time when bosses are trying to squeeze them because of price hikes in oil and raw materials. Food costs are inflated, too, with a 30 percent rise in the price of staple grains as farmland gets paved over or converted to profitable orchards and vegetable farms.

The working population has every reason to struggle -- and has the fighting spirit and class solidarity to do this. The task is to build organization and broader links that can sustain, coordinate and escalate these struggles.

David Whitehouse is a correspondent for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website (  Thanks to Alan Maass.