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Anita Chan, China’s Workers under Assault. The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy
Anita Chan's book is a reworking in greater depth of the studies that she has published over the last few years, on the exploitation suffered by Chinese workers in the capitalist enclaves along China's coast. Her approach is largely descriptive, and is based on her analyses of around twenty cases which she classifies into six different categories: forced labor and the violations of shop-floor labor standards, corporal punishment and physical assaults, violations of occupational safety and health, violations of the right to work, violations of the right to organise and undertake collective action, and indentured labor abroad. A seventh chapter deals with the forms of worker resistance.
Her descriptions do not add much, in purely factual terms, to what has already appeared in publications by NGOs and by dissident groups concerned with labour issues, but the great strength of the book lies in her presentation of a fuller picture of exploitation in China(1). This exploitation takes various forms, such as a prohibition on drinking and going to the toilet, public humiliation and physical assaults, the compulsory payment of a deposit, the confiscation of identity papers, the locking of dormitories (with horrendous consequences when fire breaks out), sexual harassment, systematic non-payment of overtime, ridiculously low wages (as low as 5 yuan per day), etc. An original feature of Anita Chan's book is that, wherever possible, she informs us about the actual outcome of the incidents which she relates. These range from victory to defeat, and they include partial resolutions like public apologies from the management, and the imposition of fines and damages in cases of physical harmwhich are not regularly paid, however.
Anita Chan's most precious analytical contribution is in the way she uncovers the new power relations operating across the field of social conflict. The very fact that we get to know of cases of ill treatment, often through direct reports in the Chinese press, shows that there are now different groups in pursuit of divergent interests. This internal pluralism within the bureaucracy itself, in turn affects the development of the protest movements. As Anita Chan notes: The state is not monolithic. Although some bureaucracies are pro-labor or at least neutral in their attitudes, some offer support and even connive with management to exploit labor (p. 14). She adds that: the lower the [administrative] level, it seems, the tighter the collusion between officials and management (p.15). And this is for reasons that have nothing to do with ideology or politics, but rather because company taxes provide an important source of income for the local administration: The official trade unions and the local government labor bureaus are the most sympathetic to labor. Most of the cases in this book come from newspapers and journals published by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and the Ministry of Labor (p. 4). The cases of the Zhaojie factory (pp. 20-24) and Zhili factory (pp. 106-132) are typical in this respect. The author notes another major shift in the modalities of social conflict, mistreated workers often seek help from the media (p. 5), adding that they are adept at invoking the regime's residual socialist discourse, in order to push the authorities towards coming down on their side. And the fact that the arbitration committees in disputes between workers and employers are increasingly supporting the workers' side (p. 149) seems to point in the same direction. So the workers have acquired various different ways of exerting pressure, and do not hesitate to make use of them.
The point that emerges here (but not only here, for the situation is similar in other areas(2) is that it is no longer a question of deciding whether the regime has become good (that is, respectful of social rights), or whether it is still as bad as ever, but rather of locating the causes behind its evolution. All too often, analyses are steeped in moralising, trying to discover whether the regime has undergone a conversion or whether it is still evil. What is crucial at the present juncture is to set aside these damascene conversion narratives, and work out what it is that is changing the socio-political situation and the leadership. The most likely hypothesis is that the driving force behind the current changes, and those still to come, is the productive conflict between different groups. This pluralism, which is, however, restricted to existing social agencies (branches of government, enterprises, local interests, trade unions, etc.) seems the most probable force for change.
On the side of the exploiters there are also differences. European investors cause no problems (unless they have local subcontractors, which is often the case for the multinational toy and textile companies), nor do the Japanese (for obvious reasons); the principal villains here are the investors from Hong Kong and Korea.
A second valuable contribution from Anita Chan's book is the way in which she returns to the question of the relationship between human rights and labour rights. Here she shows considerable forcefulness and a keen insight, as well as courage (for the whole topic is a minefield of political correctness). She observes that many governments and NGOs insist on the importance of respect for human rights when they discuss labour rights: freedom of association, the right to organise and bargain collectively, a minimum age of employment, no forced or slave labor, a prohibition against discrimination (p. 24). But the NGOs with a special interest in labour matters, along with the international trade union federations (as well as the workers themselves, as far as can be ascertained), have a completely different approach. They give priority to working conditions and rates of pay, demanding suitable wages, safe working conditions, and a guaranteed minimum level of respect for the workers. In this regard, human rights are a secondary issue. She notes that Han Dongfang, the best known of the worker dissidents(3), acknowledges this reality when he urges Chinese workers to call upon the official unions whenever problems arise. Within a more global perspective, she offers the following advice to those foreign activists who have organised boycotts, aimed at getting foreign firms relying on exploitative subcontractors to change their policy: The anti-sweatshop campaign, in my view, would further its cause if it oriented its strategy toward the role of the State (p. 234). Indeed, obliging the state to intervene is a clever way of bringing out the fissures between contending groups and taking advantage of them.
Naturally enough, despite its may fine qualities, this book also has its weaknesses. In my view, the major problem lies in its lack of reflection on the nature of those people we loosely call the workers nowadays. This weakness leads her to apply the term workers to very diverse categories of working people, with very different backgrounds, education, practices and even interests. The most striking sign of this confusion is the way she treats the super-exploited workers of the coastal regions on an equal footing with the workers in the state and collective enterprises, although the latter are actually less exploited now because they are being increasingly excluded from work. Admittedly, the author disclaims such confusion on her part: It is imperative to first understand that there are two main groups of workers (p. 7). Nevertheless, in a chapter dealing with their struggles she includes them all in a single category as workers. This calls for more careful definitions. There are many things that separate these two groups, beginning with their demands. The sweatshop workers are struggling for those rights that are claimed by trade unions all over the world, by international organisations, and by the governments of developed countries, whereas the notion of the right to work, which she sees in the struggles of the state sector workers, lacks any real basis. As far as I am aware, no national government has written this right into law, nor has any intention to do so. We are witnessing, rather, the opposite trend, towards increasing labour flexibility and unemployment. The two sets of workers in China are also distinguished by their different social origins. In the coastal enclaves they are peasants with very meagre resources, while those in the publicly owned enterprises are workers who are thoroughly accustomed to their privileged conditions, and still enjoy a measure of protection from the regime. Hence the new social security system, which is gradually being introduced, only covers urban residents. The latter's capacity to negotiate with those in power is far greater than that of the rural inhabitants. Again, although the number of migrant workers (lumping them all together) who are employed in the coastal enterprises, is unknown (and the author provides no data on this), it is without doubt a lower figure than the 50 to 60 million who were sacked from their jobs in the cities between 1994 and 2001. Finally, these two different worker populations are not generally in competition with each other in the labour market. Although a certain number of cases of such competition may have come to light, particularly in Guangdong, workers in the state enterprises are not being replaced by peasants. The practices of concealed unemployment, and the economic difficulties confronting the state enterprises, are such that there is no question of firing some to hire others. Moreover, while there is evidence of a certain increase in work pressures in some large publicly owned enterprises(4), those I have visited personally still operate very much in the old mould, being over-manned, under-productive, etc. There are also big differences in the way in which the authorities handle their protest movements. The Chinese press frequently refers to confrontations between rural workers and foreign bosses, but it never mentions conflicts arising from layoffs, or the difficulties faced by the unemployed. In other words, there are actually two distinct categories of workers, and these are connected to two phases of capitalist development. There is primitive capitalism, with its roots in the early nineteenth century in Europe and its extreme exploitation of labour, and there is post-modern capitalism, with its large-scale layoffs and its reliance on technological intensification(5).
Her too-perfunctory concern with analysing the notion of the working class is not unique to Anita Chan, but is commonly shared by many sinologists concerned with labour issues. It is a tendency which may perhaps reflect the fact that most specialists in contemporary China are from the English-speaking world, or else received their education there. In the Anglo-Saxon world, there is a very specific way of envisaging labour-related issues. The analysis that Anita Chan makes of past trade union claims shows this distinctly Anglo-Saxon characteristic. She emphasises the preponderance of economic demands put forward from within the labour movement, forgetting that this preponderance is essentially limited to Britain and the United States, whereas in most European countries the main aim of the labour movement was the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of worker power(6). Economic demands were merely the means to achieve this larger ambition.
Of course, this criticism in no way mitigates the quality of this book which is an outstanding and, I would stress again, courageous document on the creation of a new Chinese working class.
Translated from the French original by Jonathan Hall
1. See particularly the publications of the China Labour Education and Information Centre and the two reviews: Change and China Labour Bulletin (Hong Kong).
2. See the numerous publications by Li Lianjiang and Kevin J. O'Brien on rural resistance, and the article by Isabelle Thireau and Han Linshan entitled Spaces of Discussion, Forms of Decision: The Plurality of Power Premises in the Chinese Countryside in Françoise Mengin and Jean-Louis Rocca eds., Politics in China: The Moving Frontiers, Houdmills, Palgrave (forthcoming). In the area of the NGOs too, there is a growing complexity in their relations with the bureaucracy, and this is freeing up an increasingly wide margin for manoeuvre and new initiatives; see the review, China Brief, published by Nick Young in Beijing.
3. For further information on the activities of Han Dongfang, see the China Labour Bulletin website (http://iso.china-labour.org.hk/iso/).
4. Zhao Minghua and Theo Nichols, Management Control of Labour in State-owned Enterprises: Cases from the Textile Industry, The China Journal, no. 36, July 1996.
5. On these issues see my Old Working Class, New Working Class: Reforms, Labour Crisis and the Two Faces of Conflicts in Chinese Urban Areas, to be published in a forthcoming collection by Curzon Press; and Three at Once': The Multidimensional Scope of Labour Crisis in China, in Politics in China: the Moving Frontiers, Palgrave (forthcoming).
6. Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg eds., Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986.