‘Striking to Survive’ in China

December 14, 2018

From the November-December 2018 issue of News & Letters

Oakland, Calif.—On Oct. 7 over 50 people came to hear worker-activists from China’s industrial heartland in Guangdong province tell of decades of workers’ resistance at a meeting co-sponsored by the Bay Area Local of News and Letters Committees. The main speaker Fan Shigang is author and editor of the just-published Striking to Survive: Workers’ Resistance to Factory Relocations in China.

The book gives us rare access to the accounts of workers themselves in factory after factory involved in labor strife, put in context with the history of two strikes provoked by owners’ attempts to move production to locations with a more docile or cheaper workforce.


Fan was part of a movement of university students who, motivated by embracing Marxism while the regime only paid lip service to Marx, expressed solidarity with factory workers after the Great Recession of 2008-09 by getting factory jobs themselves. These student-worker-activists focused on the industrial area of the Pearl River Delta, with 14 industrial cities employing 13 million workers, most of them part of the army of 300 million migrant Chinese workers.

Fan identified three cycles of strikes since 2002, when China joined the World Trade Organization. To combat the many strikes that followed, by 2006 the regime accepted more workers at privately owned factories into the state union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), promising the bosses to oppose strikes.

Fan marked the beginning of the second cycle of strikes in 2010, after widespread plant shutdowns in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, with wildcat strikes over the obstruction of ACFTU officials. In March came the suicides of workers at Foxconn, and the Honda strike in May. Some strikes achieved a doubling of wages, and there was a rapid increase of the minimum wage in industrial areas.

A third cycle of strikes began in 2012 with the plan to move 10,000 factories from the city of Shenzhen. Workers had to strike to collect the severance pay due them. They would hear the boss claim their plant was not closing, then find he was moving machines out. That kind of strike is familiar to U.S. workers, like the Republic Windows and Doors workers in Chicago who 10 years ago began a sit-down strike to keep the boss from moving machines to Iowa.

Fan distinguished the majority of Marxist worker-activists from the avowed Maoists that had attracted media attention, but said regretfully that none of the students were familiar with Marxist youth rebellion against Mao’s rule such as the Hunan Proletarian Alliance that had used Marx’s own writings to attack the Party under Mao.

The increasingly repressive Xi Jinping regime arrested or disappeared activists at factories like Jasic this summer, and has escalated attacks on worker solidarity groups and Marxist study groups at Peking University and Nanjing University. The harshness of Xi’s repression betrays how threatening he regards both workers and students to his state-capitalist iron rule.

—Bob McGuire

One thought on “‘Striking to Survive’ in China

  1. When the Striking to Survive authors were here, they reported that most of the workers participating in this third major wave of strikes in the Pearl River Delta were women. One comment was that only when striking against their bosses women workers said they “felt human.” I asked them to comment on it some more, noting that demanding recognition of one’s humanity is the content of every movement, like MeToo in the U.S. One author responded that as the economic reforms came to China, the owners/managers/foremen of the factories treated women employed there as their personal harems. He continued that it was an issue raised in the first wave of strikes and that kind of overt sexual exploitation is no longer accepted and thus feminism is not a primary concern. While sexism persists, it is not the only problem women workers face, he said.

    Afterward, one of the Chinese students, who came to the talk, told me about the new persistent MeToo movement in China. See “Feminist Awakening in China”.

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