By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
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.
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.
The Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin (CLB), in a recent report (pdf), sees Chinese workers “emerging as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force.” 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.
In 1994, the party-state began to regulate labor relations by enacting the Labor Law, which was followed by the Labor Contract Law in 2005 and the Mediation and Arbitration Law of 2007. The latter provides for mediation and arbitration by special commissions with the right of appeal to the courts, both of which have increased the role of the state while also empowering workers.
The number of labor disputes handled yearly has grown steadily from 200,000 in 2005 to approximately 1,500,000 in 2012. As Gallagher notes, the number of strikes likewise grew, from 10 per month in February 2011 to almost 50 in February 2013. The party-state’s concerns have grown along with labor disputes, especially when workers have taken to the streets in protest, which often provokes local governments to call out the police.
In recent years emphasis has increased on spurring quick ad hoc settlement of collective action through coordination by local governments and courts that often bypasses established legal procedures. Gallagher describes the current system as “an unstable mixture of half-hearted adoption of ‘legality’—bottom-up legal mobilization by aggrieved workers disappointed in the gap between law on the books and law in action.”
The CLB report notes that workers are increasingly conscious of their rights and willing to act against exploitative management. 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.
The agencies of the party-state are always watching for stirrings of unrest. If they detect growing strength — especially if it reflects increasing links among labor unions, NGOs and social media — there will be efforts to suppress it. Moreover, concern about worker unrest cannot be separated from the party’s unrelenting focus on stability.
Recent news reports tell of an aggressive “stability maintenance campaign” against Internet references to Tiananmen as the 25th anniversary of that tragedy approached. The present concerns of workers, though less often noted in the media, could easily be represented as a threat to requiring a strong repressive response.
Much depends on whether the party can be resilient rather than rigid. Professor Russell Leigh Moses has noted a recent commentary in the People’s Daily that criticized the “pursuit of stability,” which compels officials “to simply stay with the status quo,” and “shouldn’t be something blindly sought, or be without brave advances and progress.” Labor will be the sector of the economy to watch for the ability to meet this challenge.