Democracy Digest: China’s elite fears labor’s potential leverage

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

13 May 2011

What explains China’s differing approach to protests by workers and dissidents? Why did the Communist authorities capitulate so readily to striking workers while rights activists are subjected to “the harshest clampdown since the crushing of the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989”?

The U.S. this week China’s ”serious backsliding” on human rights, but labor rights are arguably as robust as ever, as workers reap the benefits of the enhanced bargaining power and leverage that accompanies the coincidence of an economic boom and acute labor shortages.

“For a one-party state that tolerates practically no open defiance of its authority, Beijing’s gentle handling of hundreds of striking truckers in Shanghai who had paralyzed operations at one of China’s largest container ports seems an anomaly,” writes Minxin Pei. The outcome is in stark contrast to the current crackdown on rights activists, lawyers, writers and other forms of dissent.

The regime’s response —whether accommodating or repressive – depends on the protesters’ identity, resources, organizational capacity, economic leverage, and the “social repercussions” of their demands, he contends.

“Generally speaking, highly organized protesters (such as truck drivers, discharged soldiers and officers of the People’s Liberation Army, and taxi drivers) tend to fare better,” Pei writes. “They also possess resources that can be easily and effectively deployed. Taxi and truck drivers, for example, can use their vehicles to paralyze traffic and produce instantaneous and widespread social and economic disruptions.”

There is a Maoist rationale to the differential treatment of workers and dissidents, notes a Beijing-based analyst, which does not, however, mean that labor activists are immune from persecution.

“In a pattern repeated many times in recent years, authorities wait until most strikers or protesters have gone home or back to work and then quietly round up the ringleaders for punishment,” writes Jamil Anderlini.

The country’s state-run unions also appreciate that workers enjoy leverage of potentially decisive political significance.

Conscious of the role played by independent labor groups in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions is trying to pre-empt the emergence of genuine unions by representing workers’ interests.

The official unions are unlikely to be able or willing to shrug off the responsibility of acting as a mechanism of labor control and transmission belt on behalf of the ruling Communist Party. But some officials at least have realized, in a curious reversal of Brecht’s Stalinist logic, that they have forfeited the confidence of the workers and need to win it back.

The ruling party “is well aware of the threat” of independent labor activism, says Mary Gallagher, a Chinese labor expert at the University of Michigan. The regime understands that organized labor’s economic leverage gives it a potentially decisive power that is alien to NGOs or other civil society groups.

China is, of course, more Market Leninist than Marxist, and the ruling elite has long dumped any romantic or ideological notions of the historic role of the proletariat. But the regime has reportedly commissioned rigorous analyses of the ‘color revolutions’ and similar transitions so it will be well aware that labor unions were leading players in the democratization of South Africa, Indonesia, South Korea and Poland, amongst many other cases.

Independent unions function as “schools for democrats” by providing a mechanism for the negotiation and representation of interests and, under authoritarian regimes, a relatively insulated space in which workers – especially poorer or less-educated activists – can develop confidence, skills and the capacity for collective organization.

Consequently, Beijing’s strategy for managing labor is preemptive and paternalist, with the aim of “helping workers so as not to empower workers” by conferring higher wages and improved conditions to ensure that “they won’t ask for independent unions,” says Gallagher.

Yet the status quo may not be sustainable, says Han Dongfang (above), a labor activist imprisoned after the Tiananmen Square massacre for organizing an independent trade union in Beijing.

Unions may not be able to entirely escape party control, but they should at least be “independent from bosses,” says Han, editor of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.

“China’s workers want and need an alternative,” he recently wrote. “They want a system in which they can raise their demands for higher pay and discuss those demands in peaceful, equal and constructive negotiations with management. If workers can achieve their goals through peaceful collective bargaining, in the long run there will be fewer strikes, workers will be better paid and labor relations will be vastly improved.”
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