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Chinese Workers Shake the World
Article published on 12 April 2015
last modification on 21 April 2015

by r-c.
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The rapid rise of China as the new economic superpower is one of the key events of the 21st century. All predictions point to China becoming the largest world economy, both in terms of production and consumption, in a few years. China’s entry into the world economic stage, after being a closed economy for centuries, has already had a major impact. It is gobbling up world resources, for example contributing to 40% of the increase in the demand for oil in 2004, and being the major cause of the rise in the price of commodities (Jacques: 2012). To ensure its supply of resources, China is now a major investor in mines and other resource-based industries in other countries. It is now known as the ‘world’s factory’ and its cheap exports, mainly to the west, has meant reduced prices for consumer goods. This has led to a huge trade surplus with the US and other western countries. This surplus has been used to buy into the US economy to the extent that in many ways the US is hostage to China. Countries that have economic dominance tend to eventually assert their influence in other spheres: political, military and cultural. The past century was the ;Century of the US, especially after,the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many assumed that the,world would become like the US, with capitalism and democracy considered to be both American and universal systems. Globalisation seemed to mean Westernisation. However, China’s rise indicates that this process may not continue. There may be more than one way to become ‘modern’.

We anarchists need to consider the challenge that will come fromChina becoming a world power. As with the US, the rise of a super power is not a positive thing for the working class. Workers around the world are already having to fight exploitation by Chinese companies, whose main aim is to secure cheap resources for China. However, the key factor in resisting the dominance of a world super- power is to have an internal,resistance, from the Chinese working class itself. Fortunately, it is not only China’s growth rate that is the highest in the world.

The number of strikes and acts of resistance over the past two decades is massive. The Chinese Minister for Public Security recorded 8,700 incidents of unrest in 1993, 74,000 in 2004and 87,000 in 2009 However, resistance in itself will not lead to the creation of an anarchist society. It depends onhow resistance is organised and what its aims are. This article will look at the waves of strikes and other acts of resistance that have been sweeping the main export area of south-eastern China, the Pearl River Delta (PRD). It will discuss the potential for creating anarchist resistance – anarchist in the sense that it is anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchy and anti-patriarchalas well as being for equality, freedom and communism, in the real meaning of the word. Anarchism and China. A number of books about China have stressed the differences between western political andcultural values and those of the Chinese (e.g. Jacques: 2102). The reasons for the differences are said to lie in China’s existence as a single entity for centuries and its perception of itself as an enduring ‘civilization’ rather than as a mere ‘nation-state’. Its political system, despite the existence of so-called communism, is essentially based on Confucianism. Confucianism is a hierarchal value-system that leads to a social structure that is the antithesis of anarchism. In addition, it is argued, the Chinese are notoriously racist. They see themselves as superior to the point of even arguing that they are not descended from the same African ancestor, but evolved from a different branch of homo erectus in order to become homo sapiens. Anarchism, it could be argued, is a western political ideology, which grew out of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the western workers’ movement. Arguing that the Chinese working class should become anarchists could be considered to be ethnocentric, assuming that idea are developed in the west are superior to those developed elsewhere.

However, this article will argue that this is not the case.
Anarchism should not be seen as some kind of abstract belief system but as a political articulation of resistance to exploitation, hierarchy and injustice. Throughout human history individuals have acted both alone and in groups to challenge those who seek to dominate. Humans are social creatures and can only flourish in community, one that also allows freedom for the individual. There is considerable evidence that it is human nature to want both freedom and association. However, we do not need to rely on assumptions based on human nature. We know that humans have managed to transcend their biology and have created culture. To a large degree, we can consciously choose how we want to live. Our movement is mainly a struggle to convince others through argument and example that an anarchist communist society is both preferable and necessary in order for both us and the planet to flourish.

Moreover, there is considerable evidence that these ideas are not alien to the Chinese in any case. The Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s was explicitly anti-Confucian and argued for the emancipation of women. The 1930s and the years leading up to the Chinese revolution saw a large organized anarchist movement with multiple organizations, papers and even a bookshop, plus a flowering of literary culture based on values of freedom and the rejection of feudal society. In fact, Chinese migrant workers were partly responsible for the spread of anarchism in the USA through propaganda, education and workplace struggles in the garment industry and elsewhere.


This article will not focus on the evidence of an anarchist movement in the past, but instead will look at the recent strikes and workers unrest. These movements may not be explicitly anarchist, but there is considerable evidence that they are in fact the expression of anarchist ideas and methods of direct action and direct democracy. Chinese economic development and the exodus from the countryside. Chinese economic transformation is in many ways similar to the Industrial Revolution in Britain,though much more rapid. In just a few decades it has become one of the leading industrial producers, now known as the ‘factory of the world’. You only have to look at all the products we buy to realise that this is the case. It represents a change in strategy from the Chinese state, making a conscious decision to facilitate capitalism, the market and foreign investment as the vehicle for economic development. Money-making isnow being promoted by the Communist Party as the main value rather than political ideology. In many ways, the Party is more of an administrative party, very different from thestress on correct political ideology that has characterised its style of government since 1949. Many politicians have moved into business. It is a strange hybrid of authoritarian government and capitalism, showing that capitalism and liberal democracy do not necessarily go together.

The area around Hong Kong, known as the Pearl River Delta (PRD) has been the focus of the industrial development. In 1978,the Taiping handbag company of Hong Kong opened its first factory in Dongguan. However, the influx of foreign investment accelerated first in 1992 with the market reforms and then again in 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organisation. Most of the factories are owned by companies from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, but the output is destined for mainly western markets. In many ways, the PRD is Hong Kong’s industrial base. Rural migrant labour is key to thesuccess of these factories. Under Mao, one of the main strands of the development strategy was to focus on rural development and keep people on the land with small-scale industry and large communal farms. The hukuo system was established in which families were registered as either rural or urban dwellers. This was a way of keeping people on the land, as migrants to the city had no rights of settlement and could not send their children to school. However, the strategy of creatingan export zone needed cheap labour. Some of the labour force could come from those who had been made redundant from the state-owned enterprises, but these workers would have had higher expectations as well as being settled in different parts of the country. Therefore, the main source of labour was rural migrants. They were eager to come and work because the rural areas no longer needed their labour. This was especially the case for young women as they could not inherit the family farm.

Eventually millions of workers came from the countryside. At first, they were treated as illegals, despite the fact that the factories needed the labour. Due to labour shortages, the government was forced to relax restrictions and in 2003 passed a law banning discrimination. However, the hukuo system remains in place. The Chinese industrial work forceis now the biggest in the world (300 million in 2008: Mason), with migrant workers the majority. It is estimated that there are 250 million migrant workers (BSR), most of these in the PRD. The migration from the countryside to the urban-based factories is the biggest migration in human history, with three times the number of migrants in a few decades than over a whole century from Europe to the US. The government has now recognised migrant workers asthe key to Chinese economic development.

Migrant workers: life and resistance

Migrant workers are exploited, oppressed and suffer from alienation. In ‘Factory Girls’, Chang (2009) gives an example of one young woman, Min, just 16, who comes to work in Dongguan in a Hong-Kong-owned electronics factory. She works 13 hour shifts on a mind-numbing production line for weeks on end without a day off, earning the equivalent of 50 dollars a month. But the company is not satisfied with simply extracting huge profits from the work of Min and others. Min lives in a 12-bedded dormitory. It is near the toilets and smells. She knows no one there and it is very lonely. The girls hardly ever go out as they are either working or too tired. The company has total control over their lives.

There are millions of other stories like this, some much worse. However, despite the oppression these workers suffer, there is resistance on both a small and large scale. In fact, the big strikes will be the result of thousands and thousands of acts of small
resistance as these young people struggle to take control of their lives. They are largely educated, coming straight from school. The reason to come to these factories is not just to earn money to send back home, though that is important, but to escape the countryside and take advantage of opportunities to change their lives. Min is an example of how resistance begins and what it can lead to.

Factories prefer to employ young women because supposedly they have ‘nimble fingers’ and are willing to put up with the tedium. However, Min did not settle easily into the routine. She thought when she was going to work in a factory that she would be able to chat to the other workers and that it would be quite sociable. The reality was completely different. It had seemed that shewould not have any choice but to put up with the situation, but this is not the case. Many workers do change jobs regularly, seeking out the factories that have the better wages and conditions. One day, after only a few months of working, Min went to see theboss and told him she wanted to leave. She told him she had no intention of wasting her youth working in this factory. He at first said no. He could hold on to her because they still owed her two months’ salary. But in the end, after offering her promotion and her refusing, he agreed and also gave her all the money he owed. She ended up finding a job as a low-level clerk in another factory with much better, although still poor, wages and conditions.

Another story illustrates what Pun Ngai (2005) calls ‘fissures for transgression within the grids ofdiscipline and power’. In the course of her anthropological research among the women migrant workers of the Pearl River Delta, she came across acts of resistance to the discipline and control of the factory regime. In one factory, management turned off the radio on the production line with the aim of speeding up the work.

However, this had the opposite effect. The women slowed down, started chatting and singing. The manager had to stop work for the night and sent them home or his authority would have been undermined. The next night, the radio was back on.

Despite very difficult working conditions and a system that aims for total control of the individual, the factories are awash with people willing to defy the system. Eventually, the small acts come together to create the more visible actions such as strikes and street protests, that bringtogether thousands of workers.

Strikes: The recent wave

One of the first strike waves was 1993-1994 at the Canon factory in Zhuhai and the governmentused the hukou system to deport people. In 2002 there was a strike at Liao Yang Allay enterprise which also mobilised workers from other enterprises. Then in 2003-2007 there were more wildcat strikes. The 2008-2009 crisis led to dismissals but by2009-2010 there was a labour shortage again. The past few years have seen strikes on an even larger scale that are also receiving much more media coverage both in and outside of China.

The Honda strike in from May 17th until June 4th, 2010 was one of the biggest seen. More than 50% of those who struck were former high school students and interns. The workers not only wanted higher wages but also reorganisation of workplace trade unions. It had widespread coverage in the mainstream media and even when the state ordered suspense of coverage, the local press carried on. The first strike triggered a wave of industrial action in other foreign-owned car plants, 11 strikes in all. The two week strike at Honda won a 35% increase in wages. Also, interns,used as even cheaper labour, won a 70% rise (Ness: 2014). The official unions did not support this strike. Demonstrated by the assault on workers associated with the local union.

This year saw another high profile strike at Yue Yen show factory in Dongguan. The Taiwan-ownedfactory has a contract to manufacture for the big brands, such as Adidas, Reebok and Nike. 70,000 work at the Dongguan factory with better than average conditions: pay is minimum wage, 11-hour days, 60 hours a week and Sundays off. 80% of workers are women, mainly in production.

It is the biggest strike of migrant workers so far with 50,000 workers taking part at different shoe factories. Unlike some of the other strikes, this one started when it was discovered that the company had not been paying full contributions into social insurance for years. This gives an indication of how the migrant workforce ischanging. As a result of labour shortage, opportunities for promotion to lower level management, and previous actions on the part of migrant workers, there has been a tendency for some workers to be more settled and live in family units. Therefore, many workers have spent years in the factory and issues like pensions are becoming concerns. Of course, there were still demands for wage increases and the strike began in the sole plant, where the majority of the production line workers are women. The first action was on April 5th when the workers blocked a bridge followed, by thousands going on strike whendemands were not met. The police attacked strikers and many were arrested. The strike spreadto other Yue Yen factories. As with the Honda strike, the official trade union played a negative role, trying to stop the strike. Some gains were made but the arrival of troops in the factory itself led to most people returning to work by25th April.

Why the strikes were successful

These are but two of the successful strikes that have been waged by migrant workers over the past two decades. There are a number of reasons why they have been so successful. One is the fact that apart from the recession in 2008-2009, there has been a growing labour shortage. Workers are able to move from factory to factory and therefore the bosses have to make their factory more attractive to keep workers. Workers can go on strike with the confidence that they will be able to get another job. This is supported by the fact that the migrants still have ties to the rural areas and can always return home.

A second reason is the nature of the connections between the work force. People from the same local area, and even kinship group, will tend to work in the same factory. Therefore, there is already a connection that makes it easier to organise collectively.

A third reason is the fact that the State has not intervened heavily in stopping the strikes. Most of the strikes have targeted foreign- owned private companies from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Theworkers are directly challenging the Chinese state but are in fact taking action against companies from countries that were once seen as enemies. The Chinese State is not necessarily against workers getting higher wages; they are keen to create a market for the consumer goods that are being produced. As long as the workers are not asking for political rights, then the legitimacy of the State is not challenged.

A critical reason for the successhas been the way in which the workers have organised themselves. The fact that the official trade unions have not supported the strikes, even trying to sabotage them, has meant that workers have to organise themselves and find their own strategies. These ‘wildcat’ strikes are much more effective than trade-union controlled ones as the workers’ militancy and anger is not reined in. The have been helped by the increase in mobile internet and the difficulty the State has to control it. Social media has been crucial in spreading word about the strikes, using connections that are already there as a result of the ethnic and kinship groups that exist in the factories.

Lastly, the very success of each strike fuels the next one. Each victory gives workers confidence,both for the same workers to go on strike again and others to use the strike weapon to fight back in their factory.


Most writing about the strikes and the factories uses gender- neutral terms. However, it is important to understand that there is a sharp division of labour between men and women and that the fact that China is an extremely patriarchal society is relevant in understanding the motivations for the strikes, how they are carried out and their limitations. Apart from the fact that all the main bosses are men, the lower level management and the skilled workers, such as mould design and machine repair, are also men. There are some women in the lower level clerical jobs and there are men in low level jobs such as driver and security guard. However, the majority of production line workers are women. This is a deliberate policy on the part of the companies as rural women are supposedly more docile, have nimble fingers and willing to give attention to mind-numbing detail. Clearly, the stereotype of female workers was mistaken! Though it is difficult to tell from the accounts of actions, women must have played a major role from the beginning as they make up the majority of production line workers and it is these workers who make up the majority of strikers. The Chinese Labour Bulletin reported that in 2013 most of the strikes took place in factories with a majority of women.

Though the bosses may have thought the young women would be easy to control, they do not understand the motivations for coming to work in the factories. Most of the women will have come straight from school. There is nothing for them in the countryside as the patriarchal family structure gives any land to the eldest son. They have ambitions and want to extend their opportunities. Their only option is to become ‘dagon-mei’, meaning ‘she who works for a boss’. Though they are pressurised to send money home, the young women want to buy consumer goods as well as save for courses that could help them get a promotion. These ambitious and dynamic young women, liberated from the oppression of life in the countryside, as in the case of Minabove, are not willing to put up with the exploitation and oppression to the degree that the bosses had hoped. According to Leslie Chang (2010), ‘The turning point in a migrant’s fortunes is when she challenges the boss.’

However, it is unclear the extent to which women are leaders of the strikes. In the recent Yue-Yestrike, all leaders identified were men (Business Week). But this is likely to have been the case as the strike did include a lot of management who would all have been men. Although women may not be taking a visible front line role, they are said to be key in using the social media to communicate and organise. In addition, some of the demands of women have gone beyond the economic. In the Honda factory in Zhongshan it was mostly a female work force, who won wage increases as well as the right to choose their own union representatives (Economist,11th May 2013).

Still, women face many pressures that make it difficult for them to take a leading role. They are in the less skilled jobs and have less options. In addition, they face the pressures from the patriarchal family system and, once they reach a certain age, their families expect them to come home and get married. Interestingly, according to Bloomberg Business Week, there is a shortage of female workers, partly as a result of them returning home and partly because the one child policy means there are fewer women in the labour pool.

The strikes and anarchism

Though the workers are not self-identified anarchists, there are many aspects of the struggles that could be seen as anarchist.
• Self-organisation: The strikes are organised by the workers themselves with no mediation from trade unions. Though leaders may emerge, the nature of the struggle makes them much more equalitarian. The use of social media ensures all are informed of what is going on.
• Direct action: The workers do not just go on strike, they take the struggle to the streets.
• Demands are not just economic: Though the main aim of the strikes is to win higher wages, they represent resistance to hierarchy and alienation. Also, in some cases, they challenge the State by questioning the way that the official trade unions are organised.
The most promising aspect of the, strikes in terms of developing an anarchist movement is that behind all the actions is a general urge for freedom. The migrant workers are largely young, with a majority of women. These young people come to the cities in order to be free of the constraints of rural life. Once in the city, they fight to be free of the constraints of factory discipline. It remains to be seen whether these workers will join with those struggling on other fronts- for political rights, against corruption and against environmental destruction. If they do, then the Chinese State is in trouble and we have some important allies in the fight
against capitalism, patriarchy, and the State on a global scale.

P.S. :

Sources and Recommended Reading

• Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo (2013) China’s Silent Army. London: Allen Lane.
• Leslie Chang (2010) Factory Girls. London: Picador.
• Martin Jacques (2009) When China Rules the World. London: Penguin.
• Paul Mason (2008) Live Working or Die Fighting. London: Vintage.
• Pun Ngai (2005) Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a GlobalWorkforce. Durham: Duke University Press.
• Au Loong Yu and Bai Ruixie (2014) ‘Autonomous Workers’ Struggles in Contemporary China’ in New Forms of Worker Organisation ed. Immanuel Ness. Oakland: PM Press.


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