In the 1990s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) became the “factory of the world” for consumer goods. The boom in manufacturing, construction, and other sectors was built on the vast supply of migrant labor power from the countryside.
Labor unrest in response to the harsh conditions started with sporadic strikes in factories and on construction sites as well as short strike waves in provinces on the east coast and, especially, Guangdong. This unrest included hidden forms of everyday workplace resistance (sabotage, slowdowns, and what James Scott calls “weapons of the weak”).
The number of visible workers’ protests increased after 2003. By that time, migrants had gotten used to the labor regime and industrial work, and some of them acquired the ability to organize strikes and other forms of collective resistance.
Migrant Workers’ Struggles
In the first half of the 2000s, most of the demands of the migrant workers’ actions were rather defensive, asking for compliance with labor laws or the payment of wage arrears. More migrant workers used the legal channels, like arbitration boards and labor courts, to push through their demands. Still, the pressure from below on enterprise managements and local authorities was palpable.
In the second half of the 2000s, migrant workers’ confidence and experience had grown, and they began fighting for real improvements, not just for compliance with labor standards. The offensive or more ambitious demands included wage increases, more respect from managers, better working hours, and sometimes even collective bargaining or proper worker representation.
Larger migrant worker protests took place, mostly in light manufacturing, construction, and transportation — sectors that bring workers together on a mass scale or give them particular disruptive capacities. Workers exploited the fact that labor shortages in labor-intensive sectors on the east coast, coupled with high labor turnover, had improved their bargaining power since the mid-2000s.
Their wildcat strikes were also more disciplined and better organized, with coordination through informal networks of workers and worker activists using telephones and internet platforms. The most spectacular strike wave took place in the auto industry in 2010, starting with a strike of Honda workers in Guangdong and spreading to other companies and provinces.
The number of labor protests continued to increase until 2015, when it began to drop slowly. The nature of protests altered, too, with ongoing sectoral, spatial, economic, and generational changes. Following the tertiarization of the economy, more service workers — in transportation, education, banking, and IT, for example — were involved in labor conflicts than before. And in the wake of the relocation of industries due to higher wages on the east coast, more protests occurred in central and western China.
With the slowdown of economic growth, restructuring, and relocation, workers staged more struggles against redundancies and for compensation. Due to the aging of migrant workers, many of whom were then in their forties and fifties, more protests demanded social insurance contributions (e.g. for pensions). Workers were often better organized and more proficient in using smartphones and social media. In some cases, they managed to coordinate across companies, cities, and provinces.
Class Conflict Without Class Language
All of the workplace struggles by migrants were self-organized and autonomous actions. Strikes are not legally sanctioned or protected in the PRC, and the Communist Party of China (CPC) does not allow the setting up of independent labor unions.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the basis of self-organization was often the common place of origin of migrant workers who came from the same village or region. In the course of the 2000s, when migrants slowly settled down in the urban areas, more protests were organized on the basis of common interests as workers in a particular job, department, plant, or company.
However, when their struggles were spreading in the 2000s, migrant workers had no clear language to talk about them in left-wing or class terms. In public debates, the language of class (jieji) and class struggle (jieji douzheng) had disappeared in the 1980s, abandoned by the CPC and most scholars and analysts, to be replaced by a Weberian, bourgeois discourse on social strata (jieceng).
Migrant workers did not even use the term for workers — gongren — as it was still reserved for workers in urban state-owned enterprises. They used other terms like “working girl/working boy” (dagongmei/dagongzai) or “peasant worker” (nongmingong) — expressing their insecure and temporary status in the cities and demonstrating the lack of class language.
In the long run, the mobilizations and struggles of migrant workers have been successful to a certain extent. On the one hand, workers gained experiences in organizing strategies and protest tactics; on the other hand, the pressure from below led to the improvement of their status and conditions. This was no smooth process, however, and the party-state also reacted with repression to this pressure.
Under Jiang Zemin’s leadership in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Chinese economy was being restructured, the ruling party was often not able to respond to social unrest in a consistent and planned way and sent in the police, which provoked more conflicts and even riots. From the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, the “golden age” of economic boom and rising wages, the Hu Jintao leadership developed methods of concession and co-optation.
For most of the 2000s, for state and private capital, strikes were often not a big issue: wages were low and the economy was booming, so there was room for small but continuous concessions. Local or regional authorities tolerated labor protests as long as they were restricted to one company. However, strike organizers among the workers were usually dismissed, and attempts to set up independent labor organizations were rigidly repressed.
Local authorities intervened, repressively or otherwise, when labor struggles spread beyond company limits, involved clear political aims, or could not be resolved quickly. They also channeled grievances and conflicts into institutionalized mediation processes to atomize the workers and undermine class formation.
By the late 2000s, the state machine was much better prepared to use policing or political measures. It had gradually developed its repressive and responsive capacities, with more and better trained police, new forms of surveillance and online censorship, and new regulations on the activity of NGOs and other support groups, combined with new labor laws and structures of arbitration as well as more active organizing by the official trade union movement.
Since Xi Jinping took over from Hu Jintao in 2012, the authorities have continued to use institutionalized methods of labor conflict resolution and control. At the same time, however, they began to use more repression against social unrest as economic growth slowed down and wage increases were limited.
Factory closures due to their relocation to the Chinese hinterland or countries in Southeast Asia combined with problems connected to the aging of migrant workers resulted in an increasing number of conflicts. The main issues were redundancies, compensation, and social insurance payments, which involved large sums of money, at a time when the space for concessions by employers had narrowed.
Migrant workers were left with fewer options in the 2010s as the state cracked down on support networks and censored reports on social unrest. This included the sacking, blacklisting, or even arrest of worker activists and their supporters.
The new migrant working class and its struggles added to the social frictions produced by growing inequality and capitalist exploitation. Those struggles did not lead to the formation of an organized labor movement with union or party representation, and workers could not build lasting organizational cores and resources for future struggles. However, they accumulated important experience of how to organize labor protests that was passed on.
NGOs became popular in China as the state retreated from certain social and welfare activities following the slogan “small government, big society” (“xiaozhengfu, dashehui”). Most NGOs engaged in some kind of social or aid work and were not left-wing or oppositional in their stance. A minority followed an explicit left-wing political agenda in their support of social struggles from below.
Witnessing the harsh conditions in Guangdong factories province in the early 1990s and the first waves of struggle among migrant factory workers, leftist activists from the PRC and Hong Kong began to discuss forms of labor support and solidarity. They set up labor NGOs from the mid-1990s on. Urban intellectuals as well as former migrant workers themselves were among the founders of these groups.
Some of the labor organizations received financial support from NGOs and foundations based in Hong Kong or Europe and North America. Most of them were active in Guangdong province in the south or in and around the capital Beijing in the north.
Labor NGOs supported migrant workers fighting for compensation after having suffered work accidents or work-related diseases. They also supported women workers who needed legal advice and education in their struggle against harsh working conditions, or migrants who were facing discrimination.
When migrant worker struggles became more widespread and militant in the late 2000s and early 2010s, several labor NGOs became “movement-oriented” and recruited worker activists or trained workers in forms of collective action. In some cases, such NGOs helped to coordinate small, repeated protests from behind the scenes in the form of what has been called “disguised collective action” or “mobilizing without the masses” — that is, launching publicity actions and campaigns on internet platforms while avoiding the formation of larger organizations.
There were different political orientations among labor NGOs and other initiatives supporting workers’ struggles. China Labour Bulletin, an organization based in Hong Kong with a network of contacts in the PRC, has pushed a social democratic agenda of independent unionism and collective bargaining. Some initiatives have involved people with Trotskyist positions aiming at workers’ education and empowerment or organizing solidarity inside and outside the PRC.
The strongest ideological influence on labor activists came from neo-Maoism. There was a generational shift among this oppositional Maoist left in the late 2000s and early 2010s, as an older generation with roots in the rebel struggles of the Cultural Revolution gave way to a new cohort that grew out of an upsurge of discussions and focused on the wave of migrant workers’ struggles. Leftist debates were spurred on by the burgeoning use of internet platforms that created more room for exchanges — at least until state censorship caught up.
There were young student activists identifying as Marxists and/or Maoists organized in the early 2010s at several Chinese universities. Coming from urban households and increasingly from migrant families themselves, these students formed so-called Marxist study groups. They read Maoist literature and applied it to the new realities of capitalism in the PRC. Some also began to visit the industrial zones in the south, learning about conditions and organizing methods.
The activities of Maoist and other leftist groups included undercover inquiries in factories like those of the electronics supplier Foxconn. Students also spent time working in factories to support organizing and strikes. The most spectacular example of such activity came when Maoist students-turned-worker-activists attempted to organize workers in the Jasic factory in Shenzhen, a producer of welding machines.
They had little support from other workers, but when the local police arrested some of the workers and activists, supporters organized demonstrations and mobilized dozens of students from Maoist groups to go to Shenzhen and stage protests. The police made more arrests, and state security agencies began a campaign to suppress the Maoist study groups across the whole country afterward.
A wave of repression hit not just those involved in the Jasic case itself but also other activist groups and labor NGOs. The defeat triggered debates among various leftist currents on the usability of Maoist strategies to educate and organize workers from the outside.
The Chongqing Model
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a political split widened between different currents of neo-Maoism. Some Maoists welcomed the welfare reforms of Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society” and the promise to solve the problems of peasants through the New Socialist Countryside program from the mid-2000s.
The so-called Chongqing Model stirred up even more excitement among some leftists. The CPC leader in the large city of Chongqing in western China, Bo Xilai, promoted social housing and other welfare measures, a campaign against organized crime, and a loosening of the hukou migration regime. He supported Maoist folklore or a kind of “red” culture and socialist nostalgia.
That earned Bo and the Chongqing Model support from part of the New Left and other Maoist groups. They hoped Bo Xilai would win influence in the ruling party and push it toward what they understood as a left-wing course.
However, Bo was seen as a competitor for the designated successor to Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping. The party leadership decided against Bo’s line and supported Xi Jinping as the next party leader. Bo was eventually arrested in 2012 and convicted of corruption, which marked the end of the Chongqing Model.
The debate on the Chongqing Model deepened the split between what have been labeled as Maoist Left (maozuo) and Maoist Right (maoyou) tendencies. The Maoist Left distances itself from the CPC, which it sees as a capitalist or even right-wing force. It supports struggles from below and advocates a revolutionary understanding of Maoism.
Within this broad tendency, some favor a more democratic model of socialism while others continue to support authoritarian forms. There are also those with an “internationalist” vision of class struggle and those who support varieties of Chinese nationalism.
The Maoist Right continues to criticize the negative impact of the market reforms on the working classes in the PRC. However, it holds on to the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology, supports one-party rule and a strong state, and hopes to bring the CPC leadership back to a socialist course from within. In recent years, it has even supported the party leadership under Xi Jinping for promoting its own kind of Marxism.
The ruling party has developed a mixture of different tools to limit left-wing oppositional activity since its upturn in the 1990s. Local authorities employed surveillance and other forms of control to restrict the activity of individuals or groups, especially when they supported social protests. Labor NGOs were threatened and forced to move out of certain districts or cities. Leftist websites and publications came under pressure or were shut down.
Oppositional activities were even more restricted under the new leadership of Xi Jinping after 2012. Repression against different forms of organized opposition was intensified, targeting journalists, lawyers, and activists. While many of these oppositional figures were liberals who were not involved in left-wing activity, the crackdown on labor activists and NGOs in December 2015 indicated that leftists were also in the crosshairs of the state security forces.
On the ideological front, the CPC has promoted its tamed and streamlined interpretations of Marxism, Maoism, and its own socialist legacy in an attempt to strengthen its legitimacy. The rejuvenation and redefinition of Marxism by the party leadership had begun shortly after the CPC allowed capitalists to join its ranks in the early 2000s. It feared losing legitimacy and support among workers and peasants.
Under Xi Jinping, the leadership tried to reinforce party rule through both institutional and ideological reforms. Faced with the slowdown of economic growth, widespread contradictions within the ruling party and the state apparatus, and continuing social inequality and tensions, it decided to tighten its rule through campaigns, purges, and censorship. The repressive measures were complemented with the re-embrace of leftist rhetoric and Marxism in the official discourse.
State repression of left-wing initiatives has clearly become preemptive, trying to prevent any meaningful collaboration of social protesters and left-wing activists. Neither labor NGOs nor the Maoist student groups have been able to continue their engagement since the wave of repression began. It seems that this generation of left-wing activism might have reached its end.