Widening labor and peasant revolts threaten Chinese rulers

January 30, 2012

Lead article in the new January-February 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Widening labor and peasant revolts threaten Chinese rulers

by Bob McGuire

Open rebellion in the village of Wukan in December revealed the forced land seizures that have underpinned China’s industrial expansion as it has risen to serve as the world’s workshop. What rulers in Europe and the U.S. want to see is only uninterrupted production from China, in a desperate hope of putting the brakes on fears of global depression.

But the global recession which slowed demand for exports from China pulled China’s GNP growth below double digits and flattened industrial production. It has forced China’s workers living below subsistence into renewed challenges to the state-capitalist regime.

Protests had begun in September in Wukan, a village of 20,000 people in Guangdong province on the South China Sea, against seizure of more than 100 acres of Wukan’s common land to be sold to those with insider ties to the village Communist Party leadership. Village authorities escalated the conflict by identifying protest leaders and hauling them to jail, where one of the protest leaders, Xue Jinbo, was killed in custody.

Xue Jinbo addressing a meeting in Wukan, China
Xue Jinbo addressing a meeting in Wukan, China, before his murder by the state.

Even as police blamed Xue’s death on his supposedly poor health, refusing to explain the extensive bruising covering his body, on Dec. 11 villagers physically evicted all the Party hacks and their security forces who had controlled Wukan for decades, and then barricaded roads into the village. For a week Wukan was a free village, with no authority beyond the newly-elected village council–but with the police and the armed might of the Chinese state gathered outside the boundaries.


Police did not repeat their initial forceful intervention in Wukan of beating demonstrators and jailing identified strike leaders. Instead, the villagers only took down barricades on Dec. 22 after high-level negotiations with Zhu Mingguo, the deputy Party chief of Guangdong.

Zhu called the land seizure illegal, and deemed the villagers’ demands reasonable. As in every demonstration, the protesters had to pay lip service to the authority of the Party, but Zhu’s conciliatory words were reinforced at the highest national levels as Prime Minister Wen Jiabao proclaimed: “China can no longer sacrifice farmers’ land rights for the sake of reducing the cost of urbanization and industrialization.”

Nearly a month later, it appeared that the agreement with the authorities was just another police club. The villagers in Wukan had demanded the return of Xue Jinbo’s body–police are still holding it for further “investigation.” They demanded all protest leaders be released–police released the other three, but only on bail, still facing charges. They demanded that the old village bosses leave, and the last election early in 2011 that had kept them in power was officially canceled–but now pressure is being brought to bear for Wukan to re-elect the same hacks.

Most importantly, despite a promise to buy back the land from developers, there is no sign that the land sale will be reversed, even though it was officially declared illegal. Either the official concessions to end the blockade of Wukan were empty from the start, or higher-up Party officials overturned that settlement. The question of how forcefully to quash dissent will play into winners and losers in the leadership succession of 2012.


For peasants, what the government called illegal land seizures did not define the problem. Last year the government called 1,485 land grabs officially illegal, but peasants barricaded themselves in and otherwise protested 75 times that many. The incentive for land grabs has only increased since 2006, as land sales have represented 40% of the budget. The casualties of land grabs, now-landless peasants, each year join the work force in internal migration to the export factories.

Peasants and workers have continually escalated resistance to the “so-called primitive accumulation of capital,” as Karl Marx called it, while China had two decades of double-digit GNP growth by making labor power, forced labor power, available to the world’s capitalists. The government acknowledged 8,150 “mass incidents,” a substantial number, back in 1992. By 2004 they tallied more than 70,000, and fully 180,000 in 2010. Actions by peasants resisting land grabs even outnumber factory strikes.

As the shaky global economy has slowed down or at least flattened China’s manufacturing for export, workers have accumulated fresh grievances that they have been able to settle only by going on strike. Strikers face not only factory management, but the police forces defending the state-capitalist regime against local strikes that might resonate elsewhere, as did the auto parts strikes in 2010 that shut down all Honda auto production. (See “Strikers in China demand own unions, defy capitalism,” Sept.-Oct. 2010 N&L.)

In December, companies slashing year-end bonuses–not Wall Street-style, but part of annual wages paid before migrant workers’ return to their homes for New Year’s–forced workers to strike at, among others, Guangzhou Aries Auto Parts in Guangzhou and LG Display in Nanjing. The more than 2,000 workers at LG Display went on strike not only because their bonuses were slashed, even as they worked overtime and inflation increased, but because the Korean-owned company issued bonuses more than five times larger for its Korean-national employees. Strikers returned to work after the company restored and doubled their bonuses.

Workers at state-owned Chengdu Steel in Sichuan province went on strike on Jan. 4. They were demanding not only higher wages, but also full disclosure of the salaries of the factory managers. According to China Labour Watch, the picketing steelworkers marched thousands strong and blocked traffic at an expressway for several hours until police dispersed them with pepper spray–as if they were part of Occupy UC-Davis.


Strikers too adopted lessons learned from the Occupy movement, and returned to establish a tent camp at the steel plant. Police attacked them again, with pepper spray and billy clubs, but strikers held out three days before they were forced back to work. They did not get the 30% wage increase they had demanded, but were promised around 15%, a success that only partially covers raging inflation.

The spark for workers to strike at a Hitachi factory in Shenzhen on Dec. 4 was the plant’s impending sale to U.S. company Western Digital. With no guarantee that their seniority would carry over–which threatened their right to severance pay–workers at Hitachi’s Hailiang Storage Products went on strike, while more than 2,000 workers began a sit-in to prevent the already-produced disk drives from leaving the factory.

When 100 police in riot gear forced their way into the plant, 1,000 workers, primarily women, surrounded the police and stopped them. Workers from other factories had joined in against the police attack, cursed them for intervening for a foreign capitalist, and bore witness to the blood shed by the police.

Hitachi, after the police attack failed, tried dividing the production workers from the office workers the sit-ins were blocking. Hitachi leaned not only on “the rule of law” (the rioting police) but on the union, since every strike in China has to be a wildcat strike. On Dec. 24 an official of the Shenzhen branch of the workers’ official union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions, sharply warned striking workers of their illegal occupation. The sit-in continued.

Little wonder that China’s authorities live in fear that Wukan, or Chengdu Steel, or Hailiang Storage, or the next demonstration against an ecological disaster, if not quashed, might be the one that could not be stopped from spreading. Provinces and cities have had to raise the minimum wage as much as 27% (the minimum wage is often the maximum wage) as the standard of living has continued to crash and factories face a shortage of young workers. Yet the province at the center of production, Guangdong, has postponed implementing its 20% increase, as a sop to foreign capitalists, no matter the consequences.


In the year that the revolutions of Arab Spring have toppled or threatened regimes throughout North Africa and the Middle East and beyond, Chairman Hu Jintao’s regime has been spooked by the mere threat of Arab Spring spreading East. The regime even blocked all references on search engines to “Jasmine Revolution” after activists from abroad called for demonstrations under that name.

But they know the threats to their control remain from within, and from below. The National People’s Congress is working to change the law to allow police to secretly detain suspects accused of corruption or of threats to state security for six months, which would include opposing Party leadership, or terrorism, the kind of charge we are becoming familiar with in the U.S.

The reason for their fear is doubled because exactly 25 years ago month-long demonstrations beginning in Hefei, in Anhui province, by young students and workers under slogans like “No democracy, no modernization,” shook the regime. By the time demonstrations spread to the factories of Shanghai (and even Shenzhen, the new city created to join foreign capital to the labor power of China’s proletariat) and then to Beijing, the Communist Party of China was still in power, but the Party succession for Deng Xiaoping was shaken up as Chairman Hu Yaobang was purged.

Two years later in 1989, marches that began as memorials for Hu Yaobang took hold across China and led to thousands occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Popular support stopped a military attack in May, but the army on June 4 massacred thousands in Tiananmen Square and Chengdu. The Party leadership, again in shambles, settled on the boss of Shanghai, Jiang Zemin, as Chairman and successor. The one use the Communist Party makes of Marxism, from Mao Zedong till today, is to be able to identify movements of liberation and co-opt or crush them.


The demands of production are what drive the state-capitalist regime. The demand for resources, especially for coal, oil and gas, has driven domestic and foreign policy. At home it means aggressively pushing back Uyghur land rights in Xinjiang to maximize extraction of oil and gas, and pushing aside the December environmental protest against building another coal-fired power plant in Heiyuan.

Even as the need for world capitalists’ access to China’s factories for outsourcing jobs blunted attempts at international sanctions over the last 25 years, China has been a prime destination for resources from outlaw military juntas like Burma and theocratic Iran. China has used its veto in the Security Council to limit sanctions on Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria. For that reason an anti-Assad demonstration in Chicago in December was held in front of the Chinese Consulate.

Supporting North Korea under Kim Jong-il, and presumably now under his son Kim Jong-un, has left the tail sometimes wagging the dog. U.S.-China frictions or not, President Obama’s decision to reorient U.S. defenses against China, including stationing fresh troops in Australia, has created remarkably little debate.

Obama has now made “insourcing”–reversing outsourcing and returning jobs to U.S. workers–a goal of his administration. Capitalists have voiced such a goal for a year or two as labor costs in China, both in wages and in the increasing rebelliousness of Chinese workers, have risen. But they want insourcing only on their own terms: first of all a race to the bottom in the right-to-work mostly Southern states, then the push last year to strip union rights and benefits from workers in Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. All the more reason for workers in the U.S. and China to be in solidarity. We have a common enemy to overcome.

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