China’s workers on the defensive, but still fighting

4 February 2015
Sid Zoichi

The death of Zhou Xiuyun, a migrant worker in the north China city of Taiyuan, once again has revealed the intensity of China’s class oppression.

Last December, a group of workers were denied entry to a construction site when they tried to demand unpaid wages. After a minor scuffle between these workers and security guards, cops were called in and started arresting the most rebellious workers, among whom were Zhou’s husband and son.

Knowing that the arrestees would be tortured at the police station, Zhou tried to stall the police van by gripping the legs of one of the officers. The cop then strangled Zhou until she passed out. For the next hour, she lay unconscious on the cold ground.

No ambulance was called; Zhou was thrown into the van and taken to a police station with the other arrestees. Next morning, her husband, who had been severely beaten in the station and suffered six broken ribs, was told that his wife was dead.

Although the state’s propaganda machines are currently characterising Zhou’s death as a tragic but rare incident caused by bad eggs in the police force, most workers know which side the cops are always on.

A Chinese labour activist group, Workers’ Viewpoint, has counted nine cases of large-scale police crackdowns against striking workers in Guangdong province since last October. In the case of Qingsheng Garment Factory, a supplier of fashion brand Uniqlo, 600 cops were deployed on the ninth day of a strike. The workers, mostly women, were attacked with batons and shields and driven back into workshops.

This repression against workers also reflects the declining fortunes of China’s economy.

The country’s growth continues to slow, dropping from 7.7 percent in 2013 to 7.4 percent in 2014 – a 24-year low. According to the Financial Times, Chinese industrial profits slumped by a record 8 percent in December.

The giant state-owned enterprises have the backing of the central government, but many small private companies are going bust.

As a result, many bosses reportedly are restructuring their investments to minimise tax payments. One example is Asia’s richest capitalist, Li Ka-shing, who recently restructured his business empire in China and Hong Kong and registered the new companies in the Cayman Islands.

A 4 February report in the South China Morning Post notes that “more than 75 per cent of companies that have listed in Hong Kong in the past decade or so have incorporated in the Caymans, including a number of state-owned enterprises”.

China’s migrant workers, who mostly work in the private sector, have become the first group to feel the pain of the economic slowdown.

This is why, compared with the 2010 strike wave, in which workers were mostly demanding pay increases, current industrial actions in the coastal economic zones are more defensive. Many workers are fighting for unpaid wages, social security funds or compensation before their factories are closed down or shifted overseas.

The current struggles also are much tougher than in 2010. Strikes last for longer, and workers need to picket 24/7 to prevent bosses from moving plant equipment out secretly.

If the Communist Party were genuinely representing the working class, as its leaders and propaganda machine always claim, it would expropriate the assets of the misbehaved capitalists and set up a national fund to compensate the affected workers.

However, the party is committed to the opposite agenda: it safeguards the interests of the rich and powerful at the expense of the workers.

Despite the oppressive climate, workers aren’t giving up without a fight. Zhou’s death has caught national attention only because her workmates and family resisted handing over the footage of the incident, which was on their mobile phones, to the police. Instead they uploaded it to social media.

When Taiyuan police offered a large sum of money as a compromise, Zhou’s husband told the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television: “If I accept the money as an out-of-court settlement, more ordinary people around the country will suffer from police brutality. No matter how much money they offer, I won’t give up demanding justice.”

The brave stand of Zhou’s family is supported by many workers and labour activists across the country, who are themselves oppressed by the state but continually show solidarity in various ways to keep the campaign alive. So far, their efforts have led to the arrest of four cops involved in the incident.

China’s labour movement has displayed promising signs of united struggle. For instance, in January, tens of thousands of taxi drivers in five different provinces struck on the same day. There was no observable and open coordinating body, but it definitely was not a coincidence.

The recent labour history of the country shows that police boots and batons can’t repress the workers’ struggles completely; the latter always come back with more determination and courage.

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