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The Return of the Working Class “with Chinese Characteristics”

The recent protests in China are a symptom of the times. It puts back in play the dangerous power of the working class that the CCP has kept in the shadows through coercion and repression amidst the country’s capitalist restoration.

André Barbieri

December 19, 2022
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Protests at Foxconn in China

At the end of November, protests broke out at Foxconn factory complexes in China led by workers who had been promised salary increases. Jenny Chan, coauthor of the book Dying for an iPhone (with Ngai Pun and Mark Selden) and researcher of the protests at Foxconn’s various factory complexes in China, described the scenario that triggered the strike at the Zhengzhou plant, the world’s largest Apple cell phone factory:

As of mid-October, the Foxconn plant operates on a ‘closed loop’ basis, i.e., a self-contained bubble, with workers only commuting between their dormitories and the factory workshops. The closed ‘peer-to-peer’ system is adopted to maintain iPhone production and minimize the spread of the Covid virus. The workers are in fact isolated there […] Things got worse when workers reported that some had tested positive for Covid. There are more than 200,000 workers in this Zhengzhou factory. Their life is reduced to working, sleeping, and then returning to work. It is a chaotic situation for the workers, coercive and exploitative. There is no transparency about Covid’s situation. When workers can’t take it anymore, protests and strikes erupt.

The Taiwanese-owned multinational now finds itself struggling to staff assembly lines to meet the demand for iPhones during the peak production season, even though it has backed down from withholding wages and promised bonuses for new workers.

This precise account by Jenny Chan of the above events of November 2022 echoes the tradition of exploitation at Foxconn. In 2010, Chan and Pun described the protests of despair that led to a wave of suicides at the Taiwanese multinational in the face of overexploitation and low wages. They then interpreted the tragic outcry as

protest against a global labor regime that is widely practiced in China. Their defiant deaths demand that society reflect upon the costs of a state-promoted development model that sacrifices dignity for corporate profit in the name of economic growth.

Worker overexploitation in China practiced on behalf of Apple, the iconic company of global capitalism, was responsible for these worker deaths, which Foxconn answered by installing the no less scandalous “anti-suicide nets” around the building in Shenzhen.

This took place at the end of the period of Chinese enrichment, which was primarily based on the export-oriented growth model of manufacturing that came about during the final years of the Hu Jintao government. By 2022, the workers’ response was different. The failure to keep wage promises for the peak season, along with the mandatory enclosure of workers enforced by zero-Covid confinements, were the trigger for unexpected worker protests at Foxconn, with characteristics of radicalization.

Rather than resorting to desperation, Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou — capital of Henan province, part of the Chinese hinterland that has benefited from the capitalist pursuit of lower wages in the face of higher pay in coastal areas — attacked the company and the repressive apparatus with radicalized class methods. They paralyzed production. They locked and defended the factory gates so that the police could not enter. They armed themselves with iron bars to knock down the barriers erected by the police, who were then stoned at the factory premises. They overturned police vehicles and recorded videos of the fighting that went viral on social media. These actions echoed those carried out by the Chinese proletariat at various times over the last decade, especially during the wave of strikes in 2010 that culminated in the heroic worker rebellion at Honda.

The events in Zhengzhou constitute an unexpected response in the face of a highly inflammable combination of factors. The political situation in China has been changed by a decisive workers’ intervention.

Cracks in Xi Jinping’s Infallibility

This rebellion at Foxconn represents something new in the Xi Jinping era. There have been other strikes during the ten-year tenure of the current autocrat, who won an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party just a month ago, making him the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. The 2015-2016 “red biennium” saw a record number of strikes in the Xi era. The China Labour Bulletin recorded 2,774 strikes in 2015 (doubling the 1,379 strikes in 2014, already a considerable number), a result of the devaluation of the yuan and the stock market crash that year; in 2016 there were more than 2,500 strike actions against the non-payment of wages in the industrial and construction sectors. Politically, they preceded the outbreak of organic crises around the world that led to Brexit in the United Kingdom and Trump’s triumph in the United States. However, they were tightly controlled within the state’s containment mechanisms, in particular by the CCP-linked trade union bureaucracy, or by direct police repression. They were economic strikes against the first effects of the Chinese slowdown, but in which the internal conflicts of the exploitative relationship with the local businessman continued to predominate. They brought the characteristic echo of the workers’ resistance protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s. According to researcher Tim Pringle, in recording the strikes of the 2000s, 

… almost every week the newspapers in China and Hong Kong reported some kind of action by workers: a demonstration to demand pensions; a railway line blocked by workers angry about unpaid wages; or a collective action against the illegal behavior of bosses demanding forced overtime.

None of those strikes had an impact like the present one in Zhengzhou. National weariness with the strict zero-Covid measures responsible for promoting lockdowns of tens of millions of people in cities like Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, and Chengdu and increasing the youth unemployment rate (which now stands at 20%, while the average urban unemployment rate in China is just over 5%) made the Foxconn workers’ strike in Zhengzhou the fuse of an unprecedented challenge to the Xi government’s agenda.

Although the scope of the protests is still limited nationally, young students and sections of the middle classes in central cities like Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Wuhan took to the streets replicating the confrontational tactics of the Foxconn workers against the police. The simultaneity of these protests contrasts with the tradition of the past decades, in which protests were strictly localized and uncoordinated. Politically, what is new is that the protest hits the central government — namely Xi Jinping and his “insignia” policy that was advocated at the 20th Congress of the CCP — when traditionally the central government in Beijing is shielded by the provincial administrations, which are held responsible for “distorting” the government’s directives. It is customary in China for the central government to hand out punishments to local officials to silence disgruntled workers. The vice prime minister, Sun Chunlan, used the same ploy to deflate the protests, attributing them to “implementation excesses” by local governments rather than the zero-Covid policy itself. But it is significant that even the government does not trust this approach to be sufficient. At the same time, it announced a “new stage” in the pandemic crisis to justify the relaxation of restrictive measures in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu.

Police repression has also shown its limitations. The repressive apparatus took days to violently quell the protests. More importantly, the Foxconn workers’ strike put up physical resistance to state repression. The worker protests that resulted from the pro-capitalist reforms that liquidated the labor rights guaranteed by state industry (danwei system) and drove tens of millions into unemployment, were contained by the brute force of the Communist Party. In 2001, the late Jiang Zemin ordered the increase of riot police units in all major factory cities, prior to China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. In this repressive environment, workers’ tended not to resort to radical methods of confrontation, with certain exceptions (such as the iconic Honda Foshan strike in 2010). Now, an unexpected precedent has been set as workers express their anger against the police underorders to quell the rebellion against the lockouts. The gradual loss of legitimacy of the repressive state apparatus is an important component for the growth of an emergent labor movement.

Another relevant component is the bureaucracy’s proven ability to divide workers. The state bureaucracy, through the National Federation of Trade Unions of China, has traditionally used numerous measures to divide workers in the same production site. According to Ching Kwan Lee in Pathways of Labor Insurgency

local urban workers and migrant workers are divided by geographical origins (workers from within the urban setting and workers ‘from outside’), sociocultural origins (urban and rural workers), by age group (the younger versus the older). These groups often compete for the same low-skill, low-wage jobs in the state and private sectors. There is also the separation between employed and unemployed, used by employers and the state to attract a permanent influx of labor under the worst conditions, according to the rules of the capitalist market. The Foxconn strike showed the capacity of these fragmented sectors to unite in struggle, even if the challenge is still to be overcome.

Part of this advance is due to a new generation of migrant workers, very different from the first wave of migrants from the countryside after the capitalist restoration in China. Alvin So, in his Class and Class Conscience in Post-Socialist China, notes that the 2008 crisis marks a turning point in the emergence of a new generation of Chinese migrant workers, something Jenny Chan and Ngai Pun also point out. This new generation, part of which was present in the Foxconn worker rebellion in Zhengzhou, differs from the previous one in terms of childhood experience, social identity, and the struggle for decent working conditions. This second generation, which precedes a third, marked by the pandemic and the economic downturn, has either never worked on the land allocated to each individual rural dweller (0.07 hectares per person) or recognizes it as excessively insufficient to ensure survival. These are workers who spent most of their adolescent and adult lives in the cities, which impacts their identity. According to a survey by the Trade Union Federation, this second generation already identifies itself equally as a worker (32.2%) as a peasant (32.2%), while the first generation had a much more marked peasant identity (58.4 percent) than one of a worker (22%). The second generation is, moreover, one of workers with a higher educational level, with higher aspirations, and more aware of basic labor rights (considered in the New Labor Contract Law of 2007, which lists elementary rights rarely adopted by employers).

We need not exaggerate the situation facing the migrant proletariat in Zhengzhou to see its importance. The strike in its real conditions represents the subjective re-composition of a class that has been fragmented and humiliated in recent decades by the Communist Party itself as a stratum of outcasts who should bear Chinese capital on their shoulders.

To classify this phenomenon as a “counter-revolution,” as researcher Elias Jabbour does, is the outcome of dutifully following the official political line in Beijing, which can offer history nothing more than the defense of a restorationist bureaucracy like that of the CCP. In truth, we are facing the first episodes of a return of the Chinese working class to the great stage of historical events. This worries not only the Beijing government, but U.S. imperialism itself, which, through the press, has advised Xi to contain the protests by adjusting the health policy guidelines. It will be decisive to see whether Chinese workers will return as dispersed and isolated within the general citizenry or as an independent class knowing what it wants and how to win its demands. The crucial point of this moment is the fissure in the aura of infallibility of the one seen as the “unquestionable” Xi Jinping.

Zero-Covid Protests Can Encourage the Politicization of Working Class Consciousness.

The truth is that the Chinese regime is at a crossroads. It is as risky to maintain the zero-Covid policy as it is to suspend it. Although it is a Bonapartist regime that has perfected its measures of social control, the CCP approaches its relationship with the masses with caution. If it abruptly lifts the restrictions and gives in to the demands, Xi risks damaging the image of unassailable authority that he has built up, as well as causing unpredictable effects on the death rate in a country where immunization by vaccine has been ineffective, especially among the elderly. As the British periodical The Economist writes, by making zero-Covid a test of loyalty, Xi Jinping has turned a health crisis into a political crisis.

The Foxconn rebellion and the student youth protests against zero-Covid that followed acted as a kind of blank canvas for all discontents, from high youth unemployment to economic hardship all the way to the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Youth unemployment is of particular concern to the regime. Covid-zero has helped erode an economy that was losing speed in a year when nearly 11 million college graduates entered the labor market. The youth unemployment rate rose from 15.8 percent in March to 19.9 percent in July. This means that about 20 million 16- to 24-year-olds are out of work in the large- and medium-sized cities. The middle-class sectors, on the other hand, were more generally the social base on which Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” project was built. The health chaos promoted by zero-Covid has caused a notable rift within this heterogeneous class, which had been supporting the government’s measures to project international strength (modernization of the armed forces, New Silk Road, etc.). Many found themselves in the painful circumstances of quarantine amid the loss of family members and the pain of the severe lockdowns. In the sectors most penalized by the crisis, there was unemployment and hopelessness in the face of slowing GDP. This sector of the urban middle class, which has been trained by the CCP to hate the working class and fear reverting to the “humiliating status” of factory works more than anything, saw the effect of the workers’ rebellion in Zhengzhou — the same city where the bank fraud that wiped out the financial deposits of thousands of petty bourgeois families took place, who were repressed when they protested at the headquarters of the People’s Bank of China.

The anger of sectors of the working and university youth, together with the lower strata of the urban petty bourgeoisie hurt by the economic slowdown and numbering among the representatives of the newly unemployed or precarious, may be a dangerous stimulus or an alliance that could challenge Beijing’s agenda. Such an alliance was an integral part of another important episode of questioning the authority of the Chinese Communist Party: the Tiananmen protests in 1989. These historical protests differed in degree, nature, and scale from the current protests against zero-Covid, and happened in a very different historical context of the Cold War, neoliberal triumphalism, and capitalist restoration in the USSR and in different Eastern European states by the Stalinist bureaucracies themselves. Some of the drivers of the past protests, however, helped to widen the current perspective. Unemployment among the youth was high, and the historic inflation of 1988-89, with the lifting of price controls, increased poverty among the most disadvantaged layers of the middle class and workers. Many of the jobs that were emerging in China in the 1980s were low-skill manufacturing jobs, which would worsen in the 1990s with the decidedly pro-capitalist orientation of Deng Xiaoping. The authoritarian political regime was also being questioned, beyond the cynical interests of US imperialism. The protests began in several cities, with the student movement as protagonists, but soon the worker component became part of the demonstrations, beginning in industrial cities such as Shanghai. This worried the Chinese bureaucracy. As Julian Gewirtz says: “The Chinese leadership at this time had looked at what caused movements in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to be so threatening to the ruling Communist parties, and worker participation is one of the central facts.”

That 1989 defeat was key to the establishment of an even more Bonapartist and anti-worker regime headed by a CCP that would complete capitalist restoration on the foundations of a worker-student defeat. The new generation of workers and youth, already living in a capitalist China as a global power, in economic slowdown and introducing in its midst the contradictions of the world crisis, can deliver a different outcome. For this, experience in the challenges of the class struggle is unavoidable for the recovery of working-class independence.

Part of this awareness occurred in the Honda strike in 2010. On June 3, the worker representatives of the strike sent a letter to all Honda workers in China, and to the population at large, in the middle of the historic strike that would last 19 days to defeat the Japanese multinational and the government apparatus. It read: 

We demand that the Honda bosses start negotiations and accept our reasonable demands. The company has a profit of 1 billion yuan a year, which is the fruit of our hard work. Honda workers must remain unified and alert against the divisive maneuvers of the employer. Our struggle is not only about improving the living conditions of the 1,800 Honda workers, it is also about the broader interest of the workers of our country as a whole. We want to be an exemplary case of workers who defend their rights.

The workers’ confidence in their own strength against the capitalists was powerfully marked in those lines.

But beyond that, there is the political component of consciousness that Lenin stressed. Lenin attributes to strikes the ability to raise the consciousness of the workers, including the realization that the government is their enemy and that it is necessary to fight against it. “Actually,” he writes, “it is strikes that have gradually taught the working class of all countries to struggle against the governments for workers’ rights and for the rights of the people as a whole…From individual strikes the workers can and must go over, as indeed they are actually doing in all countries, to a struggle of the entire working class for the emancipation of all who labour.” The repudiation of Xi Jinping’s central political directive was the result of the fatigue contained by years of the pandemic. There is still no direct translation of this very important questioning by the Foxconn workers to political action.

The strike in Zhengzhou itself, which followed the worker protests in Guangzhou, had no clear continuity. However, it is a symptom of the times. It puts back in play the dangerous power of the working class that the CCP has kept in the shadows through coercion and repression in recent decades amidst the capitalist restoration in China. What would happen if this first episode became generalized, and from the very conflicts of the class struggle a new vanguard of the working class was tempered that, recovering Marxism as a guide for action, formed a hegemonic alliance with the oppressed sectors?

The defeat of the Chinese proletariat in the cycle of strikes that culminated in Tiananmen does not give the Communist Party invulnerability in the face of a new subjective recovery of the workers. This is, here as always, the work of strategy in the class struggle.

Originally published in Portuguese on December 4 in Esquerda Diario

Translated by Sou Mi.

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