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(en) Britain, Organise! #65 - new china, new blood

Date Thu, 03 Nov 2005 10:46:34 +0200

In the west we are encouraged to regard the growing Chinese economic miracle -
and the challenge it is supposed to pose - with excitement and awe but not revulsion,
disgust or fear. But fear and contempt is what we should feel when we know what
`new prosperity' is built on.
In the 19th Century Britain's elites - in charge of the dominant world economy -
feared the rapid industrialisation of its European rivals, France, Germany and Italy
and, to a lesser extent, America, because it threatened their control of the sinews of
empire. Powerful industries meant powerful armies and navies, forces that could
seize overseas possessions or strangle sea-lanes, conferring a stronger commercial
position on the victor, leading inexorably to more industry, more guns, more territory
and more wealth. When empires contended, commercial rivalry usually ex-
pressed itself in war to the knife, as the Great War was tragically to prove.
We've seen it all before
But in the 21st Century we have less to fear
from China's growth and the sheer size of
its economy, not because the world has
become more civilised or because the age
of empires is over. Rather it is because, as
we said in Organise! #59 ".....the most
advanced sections of capital have sought to
integrate China into the world market. The
first steps ..... appear to have finally been
taken with China's [ ] entry into the World
Trade Organisation". It is not we, after all,
who are suffering the pains of rapid
industrialisation, we - or rather the huge
corporations bestriding the earth and who
are profiting handsomely from it - are cast
by the world's media as its ultimate
beneficiaries. Cheap goods are beginning
to flow from its factories and conveyor
belts in ever-more sophisticated quantities,
promising a new, golden age of consump-
tion (for the masses) and financial returns
of dazzling size to banks, investment
houses, corporations, manager and share-
holders. It's a cornucopia flowing with
tears, it's money covered in blood. Just as
in 18th and 19th Century England, and later
in the rest of Europe, a ruling class holding
a monopoly of government, military force
and the law has started to use that mo-
nopoly to enrich itself and build ever more
impressive monuments to greed and
imperial might. Commodities that had - for
centuries - been owned by and supported a
vast rural community are being ruthlessly
expropriated: land, mineral wealth, water,
labour. And in the same way that the pain,
blood and misery experienced by our
ancestors during the period of rapid
European industrialisation - a process that
produced more than a hundred and fifty
years of protest, riot, rebellion and revolu-
tion - is now covered in a single classroom
chapter or the subject of `heritage trails', so
the hidden story of China's working class
and unemployed is hidden behind images of
soaring skyscrapers, dazzling neon and hey,
Chinese guys with mobile phones and
shades: images that show us the reality only
the capitalist media want us to see.
Reckless development
As we reported in Organise! #59, the initial
phase of mass class struggle against
profiteering development was in the old
state industries, especially in the `rust-belt'
regions of the north-east and in state-owned
enterprises where at least 21m people lost
their jobs, 5m in 2001 alone. 75% unem-
ployment is common in many towns and
across China a staggering 10 million jobs a
year are being lost. Is the Chinese economy
in meltdown, then? Far from it, because
there are massive profits to be made from
workers desperate for work and denied state
benefits; China's 7% annual growth rate is
being built on the sweat, misery and blood
of a new breed of virtual serfs, working
long hours in heavily-monitored factories to
meet imposed quotas before returning home
to `new' villages run by corrupt Party
officials and their thuggish accomplices, the
police and private security firms. It's a
massive problem: by the end of 1997, there
were 960,000 registered private firms in
China employing 14m workers and the
share of the non-state sector in the GDP
was 24.2 percent compared to just 0.9
percent in 1978. Are the working class
accepting their lot? Far from it! Flexibility,
casualisation, new forms of work under
constant supervision so every second of the
day is spent working are all already being
introduced against fierce resistance.
Official strike statistics - which do not
count undeclared or wildcat strikes and
other actions such as road blockades -
report that strikes rose from 8,150 in 1992
to 120,000 in 1999, all illegal.
Blood trickles down, wealth never
Is the Chinese worker and peasant benefit-
ing from these `reforms' which are so good
for the commodity-guzzling and gadget-
fixated West? Hardly at all. In China, the
top 20% of households earn 42% of total
urban incomes while the poorest 20%
receive just 6%. Rural are only 40% of
urban incomes and in the poorest provinces
the gap is much wider.
Redundancy pay and pensions never get
paid (they've often been stripped to the
bone by corrupt officials and employers),
subsidised state housing goes with the job
and newly-poor workers have to find
accommodation in the private sector where
slum and Rachman landlords charge
exorbitant rents. Local townships, now
without state subsidies, are having to charge
high fees for housing, medical care and
schooling, all previously free. As part of
the privatisation process, the wages,
benefits and pensions that the state-owned
companies have been unable - or unwilling
to pay - are simply voided, leaving older
workers with no pensions, families with no
homes, those whose health has been
damaged without care.
In privately owned factories overtime, often
unpaid, is frequently compulsory. Some
factories impose fines on those who refuse
to work overtime or are late at work. Shifts
can be at least 10 or 12 hours a day with
money debited directly from wages for
accommodation and food charged at
exorbitant rates. In some cases, companies
withhold wages for up to two months and
keep identity cards so they can't leave.
Workers often have to live on site in
overcrowded dormitories with poor or non-
existent facilities and complaints bring
fines, beatings and sackings.
A global workhouse of the poor
Peasants are dispossessed of their land -
during 2003 there were 168,000 (!) offi-
cially recognized illegal land seizures - and
workers made redundant as factories are
closed. With nothing to live on they are
forced to move illegally to the newly-
established economic zones, which are
allowed officially to operate without regard
to labour laws or human rights and get
preferential tax regimes. The owners pay
very low wages, often require people to
work twelve hours a day, seven days a week
and refuse them to leave their employment
for a better job. They are beaten up or
reported to the police if they try. But not
without a fight: Huaxi is a village in
mutiny. Instead of going to work or school,
thousands of people milled around its
broad, paved streets and - despite the steady
rain - the atmosphere was upbeat, even
jubilant. Huaxi has the government on the
run. More than 3,000 police and officials,
who arrived before dawn on Sunday to tear
down road blocks erected by villagers
instead found themselves involved in a
pitched battle with 30,000 protesters. The
police fled. Inside the school compound,
14 cars lie upside down, windows smashed,
interiors ripped up, number plates bent. The
trouble in this part of Zhejiang province
started when local officials handed land to
13 private and state-owned chemical plants.
The local peasants didn't know what was
happening until suddenly discovered the
land they farmed belonged to someone else.
The chemical plants polluted the village
water supply. "It had become the colour of
soy sauce," said one. "They came unan-
nounced and uninvited, they stole the
villager's land, poisoned their water supply,
and when villagers tried to resist, they sent
in men with machetes and army boots in the
dead of night to 'once and for all' put down
all local resistance to their rule.
The plants were built in 2002 and then the
sicknesses started. "Lots of people started
falling ill. Some days our eyes would sting
... from the gas from the plants. Babies were
born dead or malformed. Nine in the past
year alone." Huaxi's river runs a strange
caramel colour, though the main eyesore are
the heaps of plastic bags that cling to its
edges. "We want our land back. We don't
want compensation. We want vegetables to
grow again and the water to run clean," say
the villagers and they are prepared to fight
for it. More than that: for a few weeks at
least, Huaxi was a village entirely free of
the state, where democratic self-administra-
tion flourished. The revolutionary village
committee may have gone underground as
the state moved back in but freedom is not
dead or even sleeping; it is spreading from
Diseased lungs, broken limbs
Inevitably, health and safety is the last thing
on the bosses' minds as they try to squeeze
every yuan possible from their workers.
Take the mining industry: last year, more
than 6,000 people died in explosions,
flooding and mine collapses in China.
When in Britain's own bloody history of
reckless industrialisation did 6,000 people
die in a single industry in a single year?
The Beijing Government may claim to be
tackling the problem but in the world of big
profits and corrupted officials, closed mines
re-open illegally and others are cutting all
the corners and sweating labour to drive up
production. 2,800 have already died this
year with big accidents doubling in fre-
quency; the latest disasters in August cost
117 miners their lives at the Daxing and
Liupanshui collieries. In the first six
months of 2001 an estimated 1,200 people
died in 64 industrial accidents. In one zone
alone, Shenzen, an average of 13 factory
workers a day lose a finger or an arm and
one dies every four and a half days. It's not
just `hazardous' industries where bodies
and spirits are broken. Most notorious and
sickening of all are the thousands of people
affected by serious lung diseases from
polishing semi-precious stones for the
luxury markets of the west. Dust fills the
air as thousands of workers, most of them
from poverty-stricken provinces, hunch
over their workbenches in foreign-owned
factories in southern China. In contrast, a
jewellery shop has just opened in Shenyang
with a glass walkway in which 90 gold bars
are displayed. The government admitted
that 440,000 people were suffering from
pneumoconiosis and that since the 1950s
140,000 people had died; they also admitted
the real figure could be "much higher".
440,000! And 10,000 new cases every year
in a country with primitive or unaffordable
health care, pitiful social welfare and a
robust attitude towards protest. Factory
owners are turning a blind eye to occupa-
tional health and safety laws in China and
their workers' health is being sacrificed on
the altar of quick profits. According to
workers they have to work more than 10
hours a day in a workplace filled with dust
and get only one day off work every two
months. The owners - many well-connected
Party members - sack workers who ask for
safety equipment or compensation, buy the
law to prevent being prosecuted or forced
to pay benefits or, if their backs are to the
wall, simply close the factory and re-
establish it elsewhere under a different
name and without paying any redundancy
pay. Further information on the issue of
silicosis-stricken jewellery workers in
China can be found on http://
Might unions be the answer? The Commu-
nist Party only recognises on union, the
ACFTU, and all other autonomous workers
groups such as the Workers Autonomous
Federations, the Free Labour Union of
China, the League for the Protection of the
Rights of Working People, the Shu Pu
Association for the Protection of the Rights
of Laid-Off Workers, even the China
Workers Monitor established to expose
corruption have been suppressed and their
leaders imprisoned for `counter-revolution-
ary activities', `subversion' or revealing
'state secrets', simply reporting labour
unrest. The problem is that these are
localised and isolated initiatives, easily-
crushed. Though involving many thou-
sands of workers, the state's control of
movement, infiltration by informers and
spies and ready use of police, private armies
and compliant judges has so far kept the
people down. It will not last forever.
Child labour
Migrant workers are generally considered
to be second class citizens in the cities and
are often treated harshly by local police and
other authorities as well as denied access to
education and health care. There is also an
increase in the number and range of child
labourers, often working to pay for their
school fees or to provide an extra income
for a poor family. Despite laws banning the
employment of under-sixteens, child labour
is rife in the toy, textile, construction, food
and light engineering industries of the
southern economic zones. Child labour is
particularly in demand because children
have smaller hands and eyesight undam-
aged by years of labour, making them more
desirable than adults for certain kinds of
work. The income earned by children is
often vital to a family, especially rural
families. Jobs and education are rapidly
disappearing in the rural areas, creating a
vast, displaced, ignorant and easily-
exploited workforce. In one case, five
children were found asphyxiated by the
fumes from a coal brazier in their cramped
factory accommodation. The owner
panicked and in his haste to dispose of the
bodies failed to realise two were still
Xinchang protesters force government
In Xinchang, 180 miles south of Shanghai,
local residents vow to continue demonstrat
ing until they have forced a 10-year-old
pharmaceutical plant to relocate. "They are
making poisonous chemicals for foreigners
that the foreigners don't dare produce in
their own countries," one man said.
Explaining why he ignored warning signs,
he said, "It is better to die now, forcing
them out, than to die of a slow suicide."
15,000 people waged a pitched battle with
the authorities, overturning police cars and
throwing stones for hours, undeterred by
thick clouds of tear gas. "This is the only
way to solve problems like ours," said a 22
year-old villager whose house is 100 yards
from the smashed gates of the factory,
where the police were massed. "If you go
to see the mayor or some city official, they
just take your money and do nothing." The
riots are part of a rising tide of discontent,
with the number of mass protests skyrock-
eting to 74,000 incidents last year from
about 10,000 ten years ago.
breathing; they were buried alive. A survey
of textile factories in Guangzhou found
children under twelve working sixteen
hours a day, forced to sleep in the factory
under their worktables. A headmaster in
Guandong opened his own toy factory and
employed students as young as eight in an
illegal venture he thought was giving them
valuable "work experience". Was he
corrupt? Or was he trying to help students
earn the money to pay the fees for educa-
tion that used to be free? Whatever, there
has been a spate of boss-killings, particu-
larly in one of the `rust-belt ptovinces,
Hubei. Children are now said to play a
game called `Kill the Boss' in which they
re-enact managers deaths, pretending to
stab and throttle each other. This is the
`New China'.
Rural unrest
As farmers' cash income dwindles, rural
governments lose tax revenues and ap-
proach collapse. One approach is to
privatise or seize land and sell it to unscru-
pulous developers, often the municipal
authorities themselves! About 26,000
square kilometres was lost to illegal land-
grabs in 2003, the main reasons being the
construction of industrial facilities, the
construction of expensive apartment blocks
in desirable areas, new roads to them and
dams to supply water to the factories and
gardens. So when you see glossy pictures
of soaring skyscrapers or smiling Chinese
suburbanites, ask yourself who paid for
their prosperity and what role did our
consumer culture play in someone else's
misery? Local officials don't get paid and
often extort money from impoverished
farmers. Hostility between rural Party
bosses and farmers is at boiling point. Is it
any wonder? There are about 200 million
unemployed landless peasants and current
estimates put rural income at half that of the
urban coastal areas. Three million people
took part in 58,000 demonstrations in 2003,
a 15 per cent increase on the previous year.
In July 1,000 villagers in Qianjin drove off
hundreds of armed police - agents of the
developers and corrupt Party officials - and
blocked construction of a motorway being
driven through their fields and homes
without adequate compensation, seizing
vehicles, the local Party chief and occupy-
ing both the building site and Party offices.
"The entire village is in a state of anarchy",
wailed one official. This was preceded by
similar rebellions and the temporary
expulsion of state forces at Shengyou -
where six villagers were killed by thugs
hired by the local power company trying to
force them off their land. One estimate
suggests that almost 4 million people took
part in 74,000 similar protests last year in
China - almost certainly an underestimate.
In Yuntang villagers blocked the road to
prevent government officials collecting
illegal taxes. Six hundred paramilitary
police stormed the village and shot to kill;
two died, scores were injured and hundreds
were arrested. Its not all bad news:
fortunately the weapon of choice of the
Chinese police is not the assault rifle but the
electric cattle prod (which they favour) and
machetes; much less lethal. And in case
you think the government just doesn't know
such things are happening, the Communist
Party ordered the detention of 36,000
people who had petitioned it for redress
over land seizures, evictions and wages not
being paid in advance of their 16th Con-
The twin processes of illegal land-grabs for
residential, industrial and infrastructure
development on the one hand, and
privatisation of the huge state-owned
enterprise sector have led to a massive
increase in fraud, corruption and extortion,
often backed up by private armies, corrupt
police and puppet courts. Even by govern-
ment estimates, which are often regarded as
being conservative, the problem of illegal
land seizures is vast and fuelled by corrup-
tion. Selling land for industrial and
residential purposes is a good source of
revenue and city and village officials often
receive large sums of money in return for
land deals. It is also common for officials to
take a cut of compensation offered to
farmers. The profits to be made from
breakneck development breeds fraud on a
truly Worldcom or Enron scale: two
officials at a government development
agency were tried for stealing 420 million
yuan, a minister for land took 5 million
yuan in bribes, two bank officials em-
bezzled $15 million. They were executed
but in many cases expulsion from the
Communist Party id the most severe
punishment handed out. What do they
care? They just corrupt some Party front
man and carry on their frauds and busi-
nesses anyway.
The Workers keep fighting...
Labour unrest in China continues to be
widespread. There has been a massive
increase in labour disputes: 200,000 in
1999, reaching 270,000 the following year,
for instance. In 2003 10,000 workers from
the Xiangyang Automobile Bearing
Company blocked roads and railway lines
across the city in a large-scale protest to
force the government to guarantee the
interests of workers during privatization of
a former state-owned company. The two-
day protest action paralyzed traffic through-
out the city and led to a violent confronta-
tion between the workers and the police.
One of the reasons for the protests was the
introduction of new laws requiring workers
to buy homes previously rented from the
state-owned company at prices far exceed-
ing the minimal redundancy pay they were
being offered. What the state gives with
one hand it takes back with the other, minus
the bit that stays stuck to the grease-covered
hands of China's new middlemen-entrepre-
neurs. The police meet many protests with
excessive force and protesters are detained.
Although - in theory - striking is not illegal,
the right to strike was removed from the
constitution in 1982 because "eradicated
problems between the proletariat and
enterprise owners!" But strikers are
subjected to violent attack, arrest and
imprisonment in gaols or mental institu-
tions, are exiled and executed in extreme
cases. Simply publicising strikes and
disputes can bring beating and long prison
sentences. In many cases even peaceful
protests over pay and benefits have turned
into pitched battles with armed police called
to quell the protests, resulting in many
casualties and arrests. In February 2004 an
estimated 2,000 workers from the Tieshu
Textile Factory in Suizhou staged further
public protests in their ongoing struggle to
recover unpaid benefits and against
corruption at the factory. 1200 workers
blocked the railway line but were con-
fronted by 800 armed police from
neighbouring towns who mounted a violent
assault on the protesters, injuring scores of
people. Over the next few days the leaders
were arrested and `disappeared'. This was
not their first resort. The Tieshu dispute
had been festering since 2003 and workers
had responded to withdrawn pensions,
benefits, redundancies and factory corrup-
tion with meetings, petitions, public
appeals, court actions, peaceful protest and
delegations to economic and municipal
bodies. They were met with indifference
and lies at the meetings and police round-
ups of the organisers at every turn.
...The state answers back
Many labour activists and supporters have
been detained during or immediately after
demonstrations or strikes, then released
after a short period in detention. "Work is
the glorious duty of every able-bodied
"Workers want to eat! Workers want a
Others, usually the organisers, have been
formally charged or detained for longer
periods. Some are imprisoned on criminal
charges brought in an attempt to discredit
activists such as Li Bi Feng who publicized
the violent dispersal by police of massive
worker protests in Sichuan over alleged
misappropriation of funds in 1997. He was
sentenced to seven years imprisonment for
alleged fraud, a wholly-unfounded charge.
How often in our own history have labour
activists been accused in the same way,
dismissed their jobs, blacklisted or impris-
oned? In 2001 5000 taxi-drivers petitioned
the Lanzhou town hall against changes to
regulations and were attacked by 300 armed
police. 50,000 workers in the Da Qing
oilfields demonstrated against redundancies
and cuts to benefits but the protests were
suppressed by paramilitary police. The Da
Qing Laid-Off Workers Trade Union
Committee set up during the protests is now
operating underground and continuing its
If life isn't worth living, for some death is
the answer
Hopelessness and poverty drove Zhang Yan
Chang to take rat poison, after local
officials took his grain stores when he could
not pay local taxes. Between October 2000
and August 2001, authorities in Beijing
received at least 26 reports of suicides in
connection with tax disputes, with many
other cases hushed up by local government.
Suicide is the main cause of death among
young adults in China due to the growing
pressures to succeed in love, work and
education in a fast-changing society. Stress,
loneliness and a lack of medical support for
depression lead 250,000 people to kills
themselves each year, with up to 3.5m
people attempting unsuccessfully attempt-
ing to kill themselves. This is what free
trade and globalisation actually mean. It's
not just goods that are cheaper, it's lives as
well. Suicide is the fifth most common
form of death after lung cancer, traffic
accidents, heart disease and other illnesses.
Its most common among young urban
intellectuals and rural women. Exam stress,
career worries and relationship problems
are the main reasons for a suicide rate 50%
higher than the world average. The rate
amongst women in rural areas is even
higher as the men leave to find work and
they are left without support; fortunately
China's chemical industry has promoted the
use of powerful pesticides: suicide just
couldn't be easier! And the state has
responded by establishing a suicide helpline
which was flooded with 220,000 calls when
it opened. A pity only one in ten of the
people seeking help managed to get through
first time.
Their fight is our fight
As we said in our original article, "the
answer is not to oppose Chinese workers
and accuse them of stealing our jobs but to
recognise we are part of a global working
class and that our needs are one and the
same". The most important thing is to
educate ourselves about the struggles that
are going on, the corruption and bloody
repression and argue everywhere we can
that the rules of world trade cannot be used
to force us to accept products from Chinese
factories that are covered in blood. Terrible
things are happening in our name and with
the complicity and active connivance of
western companies and investors, people
who can be reached here in this country.
The workers and peasants of China need the
active solidarity, protest, demonstrations
and campaigns of everyone committed to
anti-globalisation and a fairer world. Pass
resolutions at your union, take direct action
against high street profiteers, organise
boycotts and protests, raise awareness,
pressurise businesses and chambers of
commerce, academics and local politicians.
Stand up, sit down, shout and rage, go to
those places you shouldn't and expose the
hypocrisy of people who do business with
China and pretend their hands are clean.
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