The changing shape of struggle in China

July 9, 2009

David Whitehouse analyzes the upheaval shaking Western China.

LONG-SIMMERING grievances of China's Muslim Uighur minority boiled over on July 6 after Chinese police attacked a peaceful demonstration in Urumqi, the capital of China's vast western province of Xinjiang.

By the end of the evening, 158 people had been killed and 800 injured, according to Chinese officials. Official sources indicated that ethnic Chinese individuals and businesses owned by members of China's ethnic Han majority were the main victims in the riots, but days later, officials still refused to give an ethnic breakdown of the dead or say how many had been killed by police.

Following the riot, security forces put the cities of Xinjiang under lockdown and held at least 1,500 in detention amid ominous reports of retaliatory violence by mobs of Han Chinese--who now form the majority in most of the province's cities.

For more than half a century, Uighurs have protested religious discrimination, but in the past 15 years, economic displacement of Uighurs has also accelerated as millions of Han Chinese moved in to develop the region--which contains as much as 30 percent of China's oil reserves and 40 percent of its coal.

Uighur women protesters challenge Chinese riot police during demonstrations in western Xinjiang province
Uighur women protesters challenge Chinese riot police during demonstrations in western Xinjiang province (Peter Parks | AFP)

As in other "development zones," from Tibet to Ethiopia to the oilfields of Sudan, China has brought in Han Chinese retailers and workers instead of buying from local shops or training local workers.

As a result, class anger plays an increasingly prominent role in the protests of China's ethnic minorities. Class-infused protests of the oppressed nationalities are thus rising in parallel with growing struggles of Han Chinese workers and peasants. Although sharp ethnic divisions separate the two types of movement for now, they usually target a common enemy--the economic and political bosses of the ruling Communist Party (CCP).

ECONOMIC CRISIS is reshaping struggles in China, but the Urumqi revolt confirms that grassroots struggle continues to erupt on an expanding scale.

Officially recorded "mass incidents"--a deliberately vague term for strikes, demonstrations and riots numbering from 25 participants to tens of thousands--grew from 10,000 to 87,000 from 1994 to 2005, the year when officials started to keep the tally secret. In 2008, the first year of economic crisis, there were 127,000 mass incidents, according to a leaked report. The pace has nearly redoubled in 2009 as 58,000 incidents broke out in the first three months of the year.

As the scale of protest has grown, it has also encompassed wider social forces. After the last high watermark of struggle, the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989, the center of activity shifted to peasant mobilizations in the 1990s, and expanded to include workers' protests in the past decade.

The initiators of the 1989 struggles--students and Tibetans--have been relatively dormant, however, until the past 15 months, when thousands came back into struggle. Previously quiescent sections of workers, such as relatively well-paid airline pilots, also took strike action for the first time.

Struggles have also taken new forms, including riots of unprecedented scale and intensity, a taxi strike that spread to at least 11 cities, and other job actions that moved the center of workers' action from suburban industrial belts to the streets of China's mega-cities.

The crisis has hit China in two waves. In the first half of 2008, the boom in construction and land values collapsed. China has gone through the biggest building boom in world history, but the speculators who drove the boom got cold feet when it became clear that China's main export market, the U.S., was drying up.

The real estate collapse led to about 10 million layoffs from a construction workforce that numbered nearly 40 million. Construction-related industries such as steel, cement and glassmaking were also hard hit.

The second wave of crisis began in August after the Beijing Olympics, with the expected collapse of export industries that have fueled the Chinese boom. Manufacturing declined for eight straight months, striking hard at the "new economy" that had established Chinese market dominance in items ranging from apparel and bicycles to microwaves and electronics.

The affected workers are part of the "new working class," just one generation separated from farm life, migrating to boom cities and construction sites at a rate of nearly 10 million per year since market reforms began in 1978.

In the export sector's biggest center, Guangdong province, 20,000 factories closed in the last quarter of 2008, according to editor Vincent Kolo.

The year's business failures reversed the flow of migration, sending upwards of 20 million to inland towns and villages in 2008. At least 10 million more have left the cities this year. Many thousands have staged "last-stand" battles with pickets and demonstrations for back pay and severance as operations closed up shop. Many of those laid off have stayed in the cities because their prospects look worse in the country.

TODAY'S STRUGGLES are shaped by lessons learned in the boom years, when ordinary Chinese struggled to close the gap between China's 9-10 percent annual growth rate and their own lagging fortunes. Wage workers fought for better pay and benefits, while peasants challenged extortionate taxes and the seizure and pollution of their land. Both workers and peasants had to take on a corrupt officialdom that still monopolizes both economic and political power.

The grassroots movements discovered that China's top rulers were willing to grant concessions to mass struggle even as they cracked down on movement leaders and ruthlessly repressed any sign of union or other independent organization.

This implicit bargain between rulers and ruled helped shape a pattern of struggles that were explosive, but intermittent and often extremely local. Outbreaks of revolt have relied on a high degree of spontaneous class solidarity, with organization that is minimal, short-term or secret.

In other words, much of China's working population is on a hair-trigger.

The ruling party's ideologists are expecting more of the same during the crisis. A commentator in China Outlook magazine wrote at the beginning of this year:

If in 2009, there is a large number of unemployed rural laborers [i.e., workers of rural origin] who cannot find work for half a year or longer, milling around in cities with no income, the problem will be even more serious...Social conflicts have already formed a certain social, mass base so that as soon as there is an appropriate fuse, it always swiftly explodes and clashes escalate quickly."

The mass base for action was evident in the March 2008 revolt of ethnic Tibetans. The demonstrations were not confined to Tibet, and they took on a distinct class character as they spread.

As in earlier demonstrations and uprisings, the initial leadership within Tibet came from Buddhist monks. The demands were moderate--for increased autonomy within the Chinese state--and the monks' demonstrations in the Tibetan capital of Llasa were strictly controlled, even though they were confrontational.

The movement, however, spilled into the working-class districts of Llasa and became a riot as the poor attacked the symbols of Han Chinese prosperity that have sprung up amid Tibetan poverty. Some Han Chinese individuals were also targeted.

When the movement spread to three neighboring provinces, it maintained its working-class character and began to demand full self-determination for Tibet. No doubt, many of these Tibetan workers had been influenced by previous experience of class struggle. The Han working class, however, did not unite around the Tibetans, and instead was wrapped up in the anti-Tibetan Han chauvinism that was promoted particularly through the Internet.

As the authorities quelled the Tibetan revolt with mass arrests, an unprecedented struggle broke out in Yunnan province, involving a relatively elite section of the working population--airline pilots. Besides being the country's first recorded airline pilots strike, the struggle took an unusual form as pilots went on strike in midair in a coordinated action and headed back to their points of origin.

The March-April pilots' action drew the prompt attention of the highest transportation officials, who rushed to settle grievances across the industry in order to head off wider action.

The next major Chinese struggle came three months later, in late June, when the country's poorest province, Guizhou, erupted into a riot involving 30,000 to 50,000 residents of the Wengan county. The spark was a police ruling that a teenage girl committed suicide--while family members claimed that she had been raped and murdered by a local official.

The destruction was extensive and far from random. "In this incident," according to BBC Monitoring:

the county CCP committee's building was destroyed by burning; 104 offices of the county government building were destroyed by burning; 47 offices and four facades of the office building of the county public security bureau were destroyed by burning; 14 offices of the criminal investigation building were smashed up; the entirety of the files and data at the domicile administration centre of the county public security was destroyed.

A SIGNIFICANT number of struggles have broken out directly because of the crisis itself, especially as the export industries went into free fall around the time of the Olympics.

The character of many of these struggles resembled last year's occupation at Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors, where workers fought for back pay and severance when their factory was abruptly shut down. The scale of the fights ranged from hundreds into the low thousands, and some of them won--but they were final struggles before the workforce broke up, and either went unemployed in the city or back to the country.

Two of these struggles in December--at electronics firms--have special significance because they happened in the middle of Shanghai. This is unusual because most of the new export industries are based in the suburban industrial belts, where struggles occur at some distance from media coverage--and socially at a distance from the older established urban working class.

The past year's most extensive strike struggle began with taxi drivers in November in the middle of the country, in Chongqing, which is China's largest municipality. Drivers, squeezed by declining ridership in the economic slowdown, were protesting exorbitant license fees that companies now charge them.

Like the fights in Shanghai, the struggle was unusual because it occurred in the middle of a mega-city. The strike had significant impact on the movements of hundreds of thousands by blocking traffic and sending potential riders crowding into buses. The struggle was also unusual because the drivers are registered as permanent urban workers, who haven't been at the forefront of struggle in recent years.

The greatest significance of the strike, though, is that it spread to taxi drivers in 10 other cities--the widest direct inspiration of strike action since 1989. Before this, China has seen a contagious influence of struggles, but in a diffuse way, as people learn that struggle bring concessions. The taxi strike wave is unique because it involved people in the same trade, voicing the same grievances--all without an actual union to coordinate the action.

There was, unfortunately, also something all too typical about the taxi strikes.

Along with making demands for higher take-home pay, the drivers were protesting the entry of so-called migrant workers into the trade, who are unable to register as legal drivers because their hereditary residence status is still listed as "rural." This social distinction between holders of urban and rural residence status is still a sharp one and a major problem for the movement.

Students also began to jump back into struggle in May of this year after two decades of quiet following Tiananmen Square protests. The CCP famously responded to those protests with repression, but they also decided to press forward with market reforms in the hope of replacing people's thoughts of rebellion with dreams of upward mobility.

Politically, the resurgence of the economy had the most effect on students, who gave up agitation for political democracy and focused on their careers. Students, in fact, became a reactionary force, largely loyal to the party in its repression of social discontent at home.

The economic crisis, however, has begun to send university students back into confrontation with the regime. In May of this year, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, thousands of students in the southern city of Nanjing did battle with police after city administration officers beat up some student street vendors. Student vendors across China, like other students, are struggling to find ways to pay for their education.

A month later, students at another Nanjing school rioted when officials told them that their school would not be granting genuine college diplomas as advertised, according to the Epoch Times. In China as elsewhere, college diplomas are regarded as a costly ticket to future employment. Parents in eight of China's biggest cities spend about a third of their incomes on education for their (one) offspring, according to

Now that economic growth has slipped to a 5 to 7 percent annual rate, even students with diplomas can no longer count on finding jobs. In past years, 70 percent of students succeeded in finding work in the first months after graduation, but now, only 20 percent succeed, according to Moody's Web site. This year, 6.1 million college graduates will be looking for work in a market where more than a million last year failed to find work, according to Bloomberg.

In one response to potential unrest, the state announced in June that it would pay for students' university education in return for two years of military service following graduation, the Shanghai Daily reported.

IT IS impossible to foretell the direction of struggle, but it is important to note that the most active section of workers in the late years of the boom--the new working class of 150 million connected to export industries--has so far fought only battles of retreat since the crisis began.

The 30 million who have been propelled back into the countryside must be facing a period of disorientation, and those who remain in the cities may suffer setback in clout as urban areas become "buyers' markets" for labor.

But according to Chinese authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, who wrote Will the Boat Sink the Water? the infusion of urban experience into the rural areas had a major impact on peasant struggles in the 1990s.

Back then, mere handfuls of young workers who rejoined their families in the countryside were able to lead struggles of hundreds or thousands of peasants. The current infusion into the countryside is massive in comparison, and it includes many who have recently been trained in China's hotbeds of struggle such as Guangdong province, where workers mounted 10,000 strikes annually before the crisis.

China's rulers still have room to make concessions to struggle, having accumulated plenty of cash from the boom years--including $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves. The party declared in January that it would keep making concessions to "legitimate" struggles while repressing ongoing organization. Struggles of oppressed nationalities, however, still receive the severest repression as officials label them as foreign plots to break up the country.

As long as struggles against national oppression are separated by chauvinist ideology from class struggles--and as long as sharp divisions still exist between workers who are registered as rural or urban--the explosive strength that has developed at China's grassroots will continue to suffer the weaknesses of local and sectional isolation.

The movement's other major obstacle--the lack of freedom to form independent unions and political organizations--is linked to the task of overcoming the cleavages in the working population. The struggle of workers to form organizations of their own will require struggles to unite across such divisions, and any victories in winning the right to speak out and organize can open up a crucial debate over the need and the means to unite the grassroots against the oppressors at the top.

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