China in crisis moves to crush dissent

January 26, 2016

From the January-February 2016 issue of News & Letters

In the face of an upsurge of strikes by China’s industrial workers, as export production has dropped and the entire economy has shrunk, China struck back with new weapons against the spread of job actions and demonstrations. The insistence on stamping out dissent has made opponents in Hong Kong, with its legally separate system, added targets of this campaign.

The explosion in job actions in the last year was partly fueled by factory shutdowns as bankruptcies spread. About 13 major electronics manufacturers failed in 2015 in Shenzhen alone, according to the Shanghai-based National Business Daily. Workers battled the owners of shuttering factories for their legally entitled severance pay, and even weeks of back wages. Strikes doubled to 2,774 in 2015 compared to the year before, according to China Labor Bulletin.


Chinese workers, denied union protection until 2008, then facing official union hacks as well as bosses in order to strike, still have forced real wages to quadruple since 2001. Devaluations of the yuan in response to production drops and stock market crashes are one cudgel against workers by chipping away at those wage gains, even as police have again fired at strikers and arrested those they single out as ringleaders.

In addition to arrests of labor and human rights lawyers last year, Chinese authorities detained almost 20 labor activists in December, eventually arresting four, mostly for inciting strikes. That means they were blaming outside agitators for what workers have been doing year after year, and trying to stifle workers’ voices by silencing those who could help their voices be heard.

China’s regime has begun to restrict free speech in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong returned to Chinese authority in 1997, it was under a “one country, two systems” policy that guaranteed financial and political autonomy for 50 years—until 2047. What was critical to China was not to protect people, though that allowed residents to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, but to protect capital in Hong Kong, which had been the key source of foreign capital in the first decade of making China the world’s workshop.

But Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper, South China Morning Post, is now owned by Weibo, the mainland search-engine giant. The hand of Beijing, which was occasionally seen in the handling of the 79-day Occupy Central protests in 2014, is now far from subtle as five associates of a bookseller intent on publishing a tell-all about Chairman Xi Jinping, have been kidnapped and spirited across the border. We will find out what the regime fears.

–Bob McGuire

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