Red sky in the East, let's hope it's a storm warning!
EVER since the Chinese revolution triumphed, socialists - at least, those who bother with matters of theory - have been unsure what to call it. Unlike the workers' movement that was brutally crushed by Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalists and criminal gangs in the cities in the 1920s, Mao's People's Army which swept in from the countryside twenty years later was largely composed of peasants.
Nevertheless it shook imperialism, and brought the Communist Party to power, at first as ally to the Soviet Union, later its rival for the leadership of world communism and allegiance of revolutionaries. Many changes have taken place. But China's recent development, as a cheap labour source for capitalism, and itself investing behind reactionary regimes in such places as Sudan, has drastically reduced the appeal of Maoism, and made those Marxists who characterised China as being, despite its peculiarities, a "workers' state", think again.
When Chinese migrant labourers in Israel went on strike for decent conditions, it was a gentleman from the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv who threatened them with nasty consequences for their families if they did not get back to work! I don't know whether the embassy in London raised much concern or anger for its people drowned in Morecambe Bay. But of course "workers' state" is a theoretic expression, and does not mean the state concerned will necessarily act for workers.
Friends at Marxist Internet Archive tell me that when their valuable service encountered interference before, they traced the problem to somewhere in China, and somebody evidently trying to block Marxist literature in Chinese reaching there. The people's publishing house in Beijing used to provide cheap editions of Marxist classics, but maybe its Marxism is for Export Only. Having Chinese workers decide to lose their chains is another matter.
Fortunately, the Chinese state is not as effectively totalitarian as other Stalinist regimes were, and along with Western capital, Western communicators have managed to enter, and some have been able to talk, and listen, to the workers. Paul Mason writes about meetings with Chinese workers in his book Live Working or Die Fighting.
In Sunday's Observer, Jonathan Watts reports on a growing workers' unrest and strike movement in China.
Zhang Liwen heard about planned action over breakfast in her dormitory. Fifteen minutes later, she was taking part in industrial action for the first time in her life.
"I was worried, but everyone was excited and determined," recalls the 21-year-old migrant worker at the Denso car parts plant in China's southern province of Guangdong. "We started our shift at the normal time, but instead of working we just walked around and around the workshop for eight hours. The managers asked us to return to our jobs, but nobody did."
The next day she and the rest of the 1,000-strong workforce repeated the demonstration at the Japanese-owned factory, which makes parts for Toyota and Honda. This time, the corporate union begged them to go back to work. Again they refused.
There was no chanting, no speeches, no violence. When the workers got tired, they sat down and chatted for a few minutes. Then they got up and carried on walking until the end of the shift, marked their time cards and went home.
Industrial action does not get much lower key than this, nor does it get much more significant. The Denso strike was reported across the world because it took place on the frontline between global labour and global capital: workers in the workshop of the world had downed tools – and won.
For almost three decades, the world's biggest corporations have outsourced an increasing share of their manufacturing operations to China, where they can benefit from cheap labour and lax regulation. In rich nations this has helped to keep consumer prices low and corporate profits high. In China it has meant workers having to endure a worsening environment, tough conditions and wage rises that have failed to keep pace with economic growth.
But Zhang (not her real name) was part of a recent wave of strikes to have hit foreign companies, prompting speculation of a readjustment. In the past two months workers have walked off production lines at three Honda plants, a Toyota supplier, a Hyundai factory in Beijing, a Taiwanese rubber products manufacturer in Shanghai and a Carlsberg brewery in Chongqing. The latest action, last week, was at a Japanese electronics firm, Tianjin Mitsumi, where workers crippled output with a sit-in, complaining they were being asked to work extra hours for no extra pay.
In almost every case the strikers have won at least a partial victory. Zhang and her colleagues at Denso went back to work last week after their Japanese bosses promised a rise in the monthly basic salary from 1,300 yuan (£125) to 1,700 yuan. In addition, they will get a bonus increase of 400 yuan per month.
Such successes have created a new cast of heroes for the global labour movement. Business analysts are warning that consumer prices might rise if the era of cheap Chinese goods is over.
The ruling Communist party – which has long since cast aside its revolutionary Marxist origins – faces a conundrum. Not wanting to stir up a Solidarity-like opposition, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has publicly called for improved working conditions. The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, has hailed a "tipping point" of relations between labour and capital. There are hopes that a newly aspirational class of migrant workers might drive the economy away from cheap labour and production, so that China could finally leave behind its reliance on low-cost, high-polluting manufacturing.
Yet, off-stage, the authorities are terrified of instability and a fall in foreign investment. The governor of Guangdong has been called in to brief the politburo. Domestic reporters have been ordered to play down their coverage of the strikes to minimise the risk of copycat actions.
Like the British Airways Cabin Crews, the workers in China face the danger of victimisation of individuals seen as standing up to the company:
"Nobody tells us who is leading the strike, because if everyone knew then the management might find out and punish them," said another 22-year-old migrant worker. "Nobody told us there was going to be a strike until it happened."
Off the record, workers said there had been a secret meeting the day before the strike started on 21 June. Rather than leave a digital record that could be traced back to their computers or mobile phones, the organisers handed out leaflets stating their demands to the management: an 800-yuan pay rise, the right to choose their own union representatives and a guarantee that nobody would be punished for striking.
On the day of the strike, the organisers were so cautious about revealing themselves that the frustrated management encouraged the official union to organise a vote for representatives so that they had someone to negotiate with. It was not so much a Solidarity moment as a stealth movement.Many workers are asking for independent collective representation. Unions in China are usually funded by companies, staffed by management and answerable to the Communist party. During an earlier strike at the Honda plant in Zhongshan, union representatives fought workers, injuring two of them. "The union is basically useless," said Zhou, one of the workers who had been on the strike. "It was wrong of them to beat us."
Given this background, labour activists predict more unrest. "I think there will be more and more strikes. Workers have started to be concerned about their rights as well as their incomes. They have begun to realise that their economic poverty is due to their political poverty," said Liu Kaiming at the Institute of Contemporary Observation.
Workers in China grasp the power of the strike, by Jonathan Watts. Additional reporting by Cui Zheng
Globalisation works both ways. If Chinese workers, many of them new to factory life, are learning to organise and strike, we might note that here in the original "workshop of the world", with the oldest industrial capitalism and the oldest trade union movement, we face laws passed by a Tory government, but dutifully maintained by Labour, under which action such as the Chinese workers took, at short notice, would be deemed illegal.
Here in what used to be called the "Free World", in the land of the mother of all parliaments, unions have been taken to court, and their strike forbidden, because of false allegations about ballot forms incorrectly posted; or told a strike ballot was not properly conducted because they failed to announce that eleven spoilt ballot papers had been received.
British Airways workers have been "disciplined" because they spoke to a reporter from their local paper, or made a comment on Facebook.
On Saturday, I was among those marching for justice for the building workers punished in 1972 for picketing in support of an official strike. We heard one of those jailed, Ricky Tomlinson, describe how Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw had refused to let him see files on his case on "national security" grounds. I dare say the authorities in charge of "security" in Beijing and other places will understand.
But I am also sure that many workers here in Britain will understand what a Chinese worker means when he says that union leaders tied to government are "useless" , and looking at New Labour, will also relate to that remark about our economic poverty being due to political poverty.
Faced with the Con-Dem coalition's assault on our public services and living standards, we need both to re-learn habits of workplace (and neighbourhood) militancy and resolve the crisis of working class political representation. Maybe as a change from proposing to "educate" new forces like the Chinese workers, we should be prepared to learn from them. Let the red sky of awakening workers' militancy in the East be a warning of what's to come in the West!