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(en) Britain, AF Organise #83 - Chinese Workers Shake the World

Date Wed, 28 Jan 2015 16:17:55 +0200

The rapid rise of China as the new economic superpower is one of the key events of the 21st century. All predictions point to China becoming the largest world economy, both in terms of production and consumption, in a few years. China’s entry into the world economic stage, after being a closed economy for centuries, has already had a major impact. It is gobbling up world resources, for example contributing to 40% of the increase in the demand for oil in 2004, and being the major cause of the rise in the price of commodities (Jacques: 2012). To ensure its supply of resources, China is now a major investor in mines and other resource-based industries in other countries. It is now known as the ‘world’s factory’ and its cheap exports, mainly to the west, has meant reduced prices for consumer goods. This has led to a huge trade surplus with the US and other western countries. This surplus has been used to buy into the US economy to the extent that in many ways the US is hostage to China.

Countries that have economic
dominance tend to eventually
assert their influence in other
spheres: political, military and
cultural. The past century was the
Century of the US, especially
after the collapse of the Soviet
Union. Many assumed that the
world would become like the US,
with capitalism and democracy
considered to be both American
and universal systems. Globalisa -
tion seemed to mean Western-
isation. However, China’s rise
indicates that this process may not
continue. There may be more
than one way to become ‘modern’.
We anarchists need to consider
the challenge that will come from
China becoming a world power.

As with the US, the rise of a
super power is not a positive
thing for the working class.
Workers around the world are
already having to fight exploita -
tion by Chinese companies, whose
main aim is to secure cheap
resources for China. However, the
key factor in resisting the
dominance of a world super-
power is to have an internal
resistance, from the Chinese
working class itself. Fortunately, it
is not only China’s growth rate
that is the highest in the world.
The number of strikes and acts of
resistance over the past two
decades is massive. The Chinese
Minister for Public Security
recorded 8,700 incidents of
unrest in 1993, 74,000 in 2004
and 87,000 in 2009.

However, resistance in itself will
not lead to the creation of an
anarchist society. It depends on
how resistance is organised and
what its aims are. This article will
look at the waves of strikes and
other acts of resistance that have
been sweeping the main export
area of south-eastern China, the
Pearl River Delta (PRD). It will
discuss the potential for creating
anarchist resistance – anarchist in
the sense that it is anti-capitalist,
anti-hierarchy and anti-patriarchal
as well as being for equality,
freedom and communism, in the
real meaning of the word.

Anarchism and China

A number of books about China
have stressed the differences
between western political and
cultural values and those of the
Chinese (e.g. Jacques: 2102). The
reasons for the differences are
said to lie in China’s existence as a
single entity for centuries and its
perception of itself as an enduring
‘civilisation’ rather than as a mere
‘nation-state’. Its political system,
despite the existence of so-called
communism, is essentially based
on Confucianism. Confucianism is
a hierarchal value-system that
leads to a social structure that is
the antithesis of anarchism. In
addition, it is argued, the Chinese
are notoriously racist. They see
themselves as superior to the
point of even arguing that they
are not descended from the same
African ancestor, but evolved
from a different branch of homo
erectus in order to become homo
sapiens. Anarchism, it could be
argued, is a western political
ideology which grew out of the
ideas of the Enlightenment and
the western workers’ movement.
Arguing that the Chinese working
class should become anarchists
could be considered to be
ethnocentric, assuming that ideas
that are developed in the west
are superior to those developed

However, this article will argue
that this is not the case.
Anarchism should not be seen as
some kind of abstract belief
system but as a political
articulation of resistance to
exploitation, hierarchy and
injustice. Throughout human
history individuals have acted
both alone and in groups to
challenge those who seek to
dominate. Humans are social
creatures and can only flourish in
community, one which also
allows freedom for the individual.
There is considerable evidence
that it is human nature to want
both freedom and association.
However, we do not need to rely
on assumptions based on human
nature. We know that humans
have managed to transcend their
biology and have created culture.
To a large degree, we can
consciously choose how we want
to live. Our movement is mainly a
struggle to convince others
through argument and example
that an anarchist communist
society is both preferable and
necessary in order for both us
and the planet to flourish.

Moreover, there is considerable
evidence that these ideas are not
alien to the Chinese in any case.
The Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s
was explicitly anti-Confucian and
argued for the emancipation of
women. The 1930s and the years
leading up to the Chinese
revolution saw a large organised
anarchist movement with
multiple organisations, papers
and even a bookshop, plus a
flowering of literary culture based
on values of freedom and the
rejection of feudal society. In fact,
Chinese migrant workers were
partly responsible for the spread
of anarchism in the USA through
propaganda, education and
workplace struggles in the
garment industry and elsewhere.


This article will not focus on the
evidence of an anarchist
movement in the past, but instead
will look at the recent strikes and
workers unrest. These movements
may not be explicitly anarchist, but
there is considerable evidence that
they are in fact the expression of
anarchist ideas and methods of
direct action and direct democracy.

Chinese economic development and the exodus from the countryside.

Chinese economic transformation
is in many ways similar to the
Industrial Revolution in Britain,
though much more rapid. In just
a few decades it has become one
of the leading industrial
producers, now known as the
‘factory of the world’. You only
have to look at all the products
we buy to realise that this is the
case. It represents a change in
strategy from the Chinese state,
making a conscious decision to
facilitate capitalism, the market
and foreign investment as the
vehicle for economic
development. Money-making is
now being promoted by the
Communist Party as the main
value rather than political
ideology. In many ways, the Party
is more of an administrative
party, very different from the
stress on correct political
ideology that has characterised
its style of government since
1949. Many politicians have
moved into business. It is a
strange hybrid of authoritarian
government and capitalism,
showing that capitalism and
liberal democracy do not
necessarily go together.

The area around Hong Kong,
known as the Pearl River Delta
(PRD) has been the focus of the
industrial development. In 1978,
the Taiping handbag company of
Hong Kong opened its first
factory in Dongguan. However,
the influx of foreign investment
accelerated first in 1992 with the
market reforms and then again in
2001 when China joined the
World Trade Organisation. Most
of the factories are owned by
companies from Hong Kong,
Taiwan and Japan, but the output
is destined for mainly western
markets. In many ways, the PRD
is Hong Kong’s industrial base.
Rural migrant labour is key to the
success of these factories. Under
Mao, one of the main strands of
the development strategy was to
focus on rural development and
keep people on the land with
small-scale industry and large
communal farms. The hukuo
system was established in which
families were registered as either
rural or urban dwellers. This was
a way of keeping people on the
land, as migrants to the city had
no rights of settlement and could
not send their children to school.
However, the strategy of creating
an export zone needed cheap
labour. Some of the labour force
could come from those who had
been made redundant from the
state-owned enterprises, but
these workers would have had
higher expectations as well as
being settled in different parts of
the country. Therefore, the main
source of labour was rural
migrants. They were eager to
come and work because the rural
areas no longer needed their
labour. This was especially the
case for young women as they
could not inherit the family farm.

Eventually millions of workers
came from the countryside. At
first, they were treated as illegals,
despite the fact that the factories
needed the labour. Due to labour
shortages, the government was
forced to relax restrictions and in
2003 passed a law banning
discrimination. However, the
hukuo system remains in place.

The Chinese industrial workforce
is now the biggest in the world
(300 million in 2008: Mason),
with migrant workers the
majority. It is estimated that
there are 250 million migrant
workers (BSR), most of these in
the PRD. The migration from the
countryside to the urban-based
factories is the biggest migration
in human history, with three
times the number of migrants in
a few decades than over a whole
century from Europe to the US.
The government has now
recognised migrant workers as
the key to Chinese economic

Migrant workers: life and resistance

Migrant workers are exploited,
oppressed and suffer from
alienation. In ‘Factory Girls’,
Chang (2009) gives an example of
one young woman, Min, just 16,
who comes to work in Dongguan
in a Hong-Kong-owned
electronics factory. She works 13
hour shifts on a mind-numbing
production line for weeks on end
without a day off, earning the
equivalent of 50 dollars a month.
But the company is not satisfied
with simply extracting huge
profits from the work of Min and
others. Min lives in a 12-bedded
dormitory. It is near the toilets
and smells. She knows no one
there and it is very lonely. The
girls hardly ever go out as they
are either working or too tired.
The company has total control
over their lives.

There are millions of other stories
like this, some much worse.
However, despite the oppression
these workers suffer, there is
resistance on both a small and
large scale. In fact, the big strikes
will be the result of thousands
and thousands of acts of small
resistance as these young people
struggle to take control of their
lives. They are largely educated,
coming straight from school. The
reason to come to these factories
is not just to earn money to send
back home, though that is
important, but to escape the
countryside and take advantage
of opportunities to change their
lives. Min is an example of how
resistance begins and what it can
lead to.

Factories prefer to employ young
women because supposedly they
have ‘nimble fingers’ and are
willing to put up with the tedium.
However, Min did not settle easily
into the routine. She thought
when she was going to work in a
factory that she would be able to
chat to the other workers and
that it would be quite sociable.
The reality was completely
different. It had seemed that she
would not have any choice but to
put up with the situation, but this
is not the case. Many workers do
change jobs regularly, seeking out
the factories that have the better
wages and conditions. One day,
after only a few months of
working, Min went to see the
boss and told him she wanted to
leave. She told him she had no
intention of wasting her youth
working in this factory. He at first
said no. He could hold on to her
because they still owed her two
months’ salary. But in the end,
after offering her promotion and
her refusing, he agreed and also
gave her all the money he owed.

She ended up finding a job as a
low-level clerk in another factory
with much better, although still
poor, wages and conditions.

Another story illustrates what
Pun Ngai (2005) calls ‘fissures for
transgression within the grids of
discipline and power’. In the
course of her anthropological
research among the women
migrant workers of the Pearl
River Delta, she came across
many acts of resistance to the
discipline and control of the
factory regime. In one factory,
management turned off the radio
on the production line with the
aim of speeding up the work.

However, this had the opposite
effect. The women slowed down,
started chatting and singing. The
manager had to stop work for the
night and sent them home or his
authority would have been
undermined. The next night, the
radio was back on.

Despite very difficult working
conditions and a system that aims
for total control of the individual,
the factories are awash with
people willing to defy the system.
Eventually, the small acts come
together to create the more
visible actions such as strikes and
street protests, that bring
together thousands of workers.

Strikes: The recent wave

One of the first strike waves was
1993-1994 at the Canon factory
in Zhuhai and the government
used the hukou system to deport
people. In 2002 there was a strike
at Liao Yang Allay enterprise
which also mobilised workers
from other enterprises. Then in
2003-2007 there were more
wildcat strikes. The 2008-2009
crisis led to dismissals but by
2009-2010 there was a labour
shortage again. The past few
years have seen strikes on an
even larger scale that are also
receiving much more media
coverage both in and outside of

The Honda strike in from May
17th until June 4th, 2010 was one
of the biggest seen. More than
50% of those who struck were
former high school students and
interns. The workers not only
wanted higher wages but also
reorganisation of workplace trade
unions. It had wide-spread
coverage in the mainstream media
and even when the state ordered
suspense of coverage, the local
press carried on. The first strike
triggered a wave of industrial
action in other foreign-owned car
plants, 11 strikes in all. The two
week strike at Honda won a 35%
increase in wages. Also, interns,
used as even cheaper labour, won
a 70% rise (Ness: 2014). The
official unions did not support this
strike. Demonstrated by the
assault on workers associated with
the local union.

This year saw another high profile
strike at Yue Yen show factory in
Dongguan. The Taiwan-owned
factory has a contract to
manufacture for the big brands,
such as Adidas, Reebok and Nike.
70,000 work at the Dongguan
factory with better than average
conditions: pay is minimum
wage, 11-hour days, 60 hours a
week and Sundays off. 80% of
workers are women, mainly in

It is the biggest strike of migrant
workers so far with 50,000
workers taking part at different
shoe factories. Unlike some of the
other strikes, this one started
when it was discovered that the
company had not been paying full
contributions into social insurance
for years. This gives an indication
of how the migrant workforce is
changing. As a result of labour
shortage, opportunities for
promotion to lower level
management, and previous
actions on the part of migrant
workers, there has been a
tendency for some workers to be
more settled and live in family
units. Therefore, many workers
have spent years in the factory
and issues like pensions are
becoming concerns. Of course,
there were still demands for wage
increases and the strike began in
the sole plant, where the majority
of the production line workers are
women. The first action was on
April 5th when the workers
blocked a bridge followed, by
thousands going on strike when
demands were not met. The
police attacked strikers and many
were arrested. The strike spread
to other Yue Yen factories. As with
the Honda strike, the official trade
union played a negative role,
trying to stop the strike. Some
gains were made but the arrival of
troops in the factory itself led to
most people returning to work by
25th April.

Why the strikes were successful

These are but two of the
successful strikes that have been
waged by migrant workers over
the past two decades. There are a
number of reasons why they have
been so successful.

One is the fact that apart from
the recession in 2008-2009, there
has been a growing labour
shortage. Workers are able to
move from factory to factory and
therefore the bosses have to
make their factory more attractive
to keep workers. Workers can go
on strike with the confidence that
they will be able to get another
job. This is supported by the fact
that the migrants still have ties to
the rural areas and can always
return home.

A second reason is the nature of
the connections between the
workforce. People from the same
local area, and even kinship
group, will tend to work in the
same factory. Therefore, there is
already a connection that makes
it easier to organise collectively.

A third reason is the fact that the
State has not intervened heavily in
stopping the strikes. Most of the
strikes have targeted foreign-
owned private companies from
Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. The
workers are directly challenging
the Chinese state but are in fact
taking action against companies
from countries that were once
seen as enemies. The Chinese
State is not necessarily against
workers getting higher wages;
they are keen to create a market
for the consumer goods that are
being produced. As long as the
workers are not asking for political
rights, then the legitimacy of the
State is not challenged.

A critical reason for the success
has been the way in which the
workers have organised
themselves. The fact that the
official trade unions have not
supported the strikes, even trying
to sabotage them, has meant
that workers have to organise
themselves and find their own
strategies. These ‘wildcat’ strikes
are much more effective than
trade-union controlled ones as
the workers’ militancy and anger
is not reined in. The have been
helped by the increase in mobile
internet and the difficulty the
State has to control it. Social
media has been crucial in
spreading word about the strikes,
using connections that are
already there as a result of the
ethnic and kinship groups that
exist in the factories.

Lastly, the very success of each
strike fuels the next one. Each
victory gives workers confidence,
both for the same workers to go
on strike again and others to use
the strike weapon to fight back in
their factory.


Most writing about the strikes
and the factories uses gender-
neutral terms. However, it is
important to understand that
there is a sharp division of labour
between men and women and
that the fact that China is an
extremely patriarchal society is
relevant in understanding the
motivations for the strikes, how
they are carried out and their
limitations. Apart from the fact
that all the main bosses are men,
the lower level management and
the skilled workers, such as mould
design and machine repair, are
also men. There are some women
in the lower level clerical jobs and
there are men in low level jobs
such as driver and security guard.
However, the majority of
production line workers are
women. This is a deliberate policy
on the part of the companies as
rural women are supposedly
more docile, have nimble fingers
and willing to give attention to
mind-numbing detail. Clearly, the
stereotype of female workers was
mistaken! Though it is difficult to
tell from the accounts of actions,
women must have played a major
role from the beginning as they
make up the majority of
production line workers and it is
these workers who make up the
majority of strikers. The Chinese
Labour Bulletin reported that in
2013 most of the strikes took
place in factories with a majority
of women.

Though the bosses may have
thought the young women would
be easy to control, they do not
understand the motivations for
coming to work in the factories.
Most of the women will have
come straight from school. There
is nothing for them in the
countryside as the patriarchal
family structure gives any land to
the eldest son. They have
ambitions and want to extend
their opportunities. Their only
option is to become ‘dagon-mei’,
meaning ‘she who works for a
boss’. Though they are
pressurised to send money
home, the young women want to
buy consumer goods as well as
save for courses that could help
them get a promotion. These
ambitious and dynamic young
women, liberated from the
oppression of life in the
countryside, as in the case of Min
above, are not willing to put up
with the exploitation and
oppression to the degree that the
bosses had hoped. According to
Leslie Chang (2010), ‘The turning
point in a migrant’s fortunes is
when she challenges the boss.’

However, it is unclear the extent
to which women are leaders of
the strikes. In the recent Yue-Ye
strike, all leaders identified were
men (Business Week). But this is
likely to have been the case as
the strike did include a lot of
management who would all have
been men. Although women may
not be taking a visible front line
role, they are said to be key in
using the social media to
communicate and organise. In
addition, some of the demands of
women have gone beyond the
economic. In the Honda factory in
Zhongshan it was mostly a female
workforce, who won wage
increases as well as the right to
choose their own union
representatives (Economist,11th
May 2013).

Still, women face many pressures
that make it difficult for them to
take a leading role. They are in
the less skilled jobs and have less
options. In addition, they face the
pressures from the patriarchal
family system and, once they
reach a certain age, their families
expect them to come home and
get married. Interestingly,
according to Bloomberg Business
Week, there is a shortage of
female workers, partly as a result
of them returning home and
partly because the one child
policy means there are fewer
women in the labour pool.

The strikes and anarchism

Though the workers are not self-
identified anarchists, there are
many aspects of the struggles
that could be seen as anarchist.

• Self-organisation: The strikes
are organised by the workers
themselves with no mediation
from trade unions. Though
leaders may emerge, the nature
of the struggle makes them
much more equalitarian. The
use of social media ensures all
are informed of what is going

• Direct action: The workers do
not just go on strike, they take
the struggle to the streets.

• Demands are not just
economic: Though the main
aim of the strikes is to win
higher wages, they are
represent resistance to
hierarchy and alienation. Also,
in some cases, they challenge
the State by questioning the
way that the official trade
unions are organised.

The most promising aspect of the
strikes in terms of developing an
anarchist movement is that
behind all the actions is a general
urge for freedom. The migrant
workers are largely young, with a
majority of women. These young
people come to the cities in
order to be free of the
constraints of rural life. Once in
the city, they fight to be free of
the constraints of factory
discipline. It remains to be seen
whether these workers will join
with those struggling on other
fronts- for political rights, against
corruption and against
environmental destruction. If
they do, then the Chinese State is
in trouble and we have some
important allies in the fight
against capitalism, patriarchy,
and the State on a global scale.

Sources and Recommended Reading

• Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto
Araujo (2013) China’s Silent Army.
London: Allen Lane.

• Leslie Chang (2010) Factory Girls.
London: Picador.

• Martin Jacques (2009) When China
Rules the World. London: Penguin.

• Paul Mason (2008) Live Working or Die
Fighting. London: Vintage.

• Pun Ngai (2005) Made in China:
Women Factory Workers in a Global
Workforce. Durham: Duke University

• Au Loong Yu and Bai Ruixie (2014)
‘Autonomous Workers’ Struggles in
Contemporary China’ in New Forms of
Worker Organisation ed. Immanuel
Ness. Oakland: PM Press.

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