Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

China, World Capitalism and Workers’ Resistance

This is a joint effort to put this blog together by Jenny Chan, Adrian Budd Kincaid and also Camilla Royle from the International Socialism Journal Day school on 28 February 2015. More than 60 people attended the day school and this blog, aims to trace back and also document what have been discussed during the day. Three different themes are covered in the discussion, they are respectively, China’s Political Economy and China in the world; Trade Unions and Class Struggle; Umbrella Protests and New Movement for Democracy. They will be introduced in the following sections.
In the opening discussion about China’s Political Economy and the role of China in the world, Jane Hardy and Adrian Budd argued that the spectacular economic growth of recent decades has transformed China and had a major impact on the rest of the world. Asian capitals in particular have taken advantage of China’s opening as a regional economic centre. But economic transformation has important geo-political consequences and poses strategic questions to China’s immediate neighbours and the US, still the world’s major power. 

They also argued that  mainstream commentators often see a paradox in China’s simultaneous economic rise and emergence as a geopolitical challenge to US power (in the East and South China Seas, Indian Ocean, via the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, etc). But Marxist analysis of imperialism (including Bukharin’s insight into the inter-penetration of internationalised production and economic and political nationalisation) overcomes this apparent paradox and sees the economics and geo-politics of China’s rise as mutually inter-dependent aspects of global capitalism’s competitive dynamic. They conclude that China’s military modernisation and assertiveness, and US regional power and alliances (including Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia), reinforce each other. The slaughter that motivated Bukharin’s (and Lenin’s) critique of imperialism is not on the immediate horizon, but competitive rivalries mean the danger of conflict is ever-present, which in turn means that the world’s rulers continue to divert resources towards destructive power and away from welfare and development. Capitalist economics produces an equally destructive capitalist geo-politics.

The second discussion theme is Trade Unions and Class Struggle, covered by Jenny Chan and Tim Pringle.  Jenny Chan highlighted that China’s emergence as a global economic power could not have occurred without the painstaking efforts of the successive generations of production workers. What are the prospects for Chinese labour to strengthen its associational power against the backdrop of privatization of state enterprises and the emergence of rural migrant workers at the centre of a new working class? At the key node of global supply base, workers from Foxconn, Honda, and other giant manufacturers leveraged their power to disrupt continuous work flow in just-in-time production, winning partial victories. Through non-governmental organizations and solidarity ties based on co-worker relationships, gender, locality, and/or pre-existing social ties, aggrieved workers have come together at the dormitory, workshop, or factory level to defend their rights and interests. In response, the Chinese state has been struggling to maintain “social stability” through more direct management and mediation of high-profile, large-scale labour disputes. Local officials have skilfully developed a wide array of “protest absorption” techniques to attempt to mute “rightful resistance.” The immediate result is that, in many cases, workers’ individual grievances are partially addressed and collective actions broken up. As China’s leaders—including trade union officials—make extensive use of their discretionary power to resolve labour conflicts, rather than institutionalizing workers’ fundamental rights to freedom of association, it is unclear how long this interventionist strategy will remain viable. What is clear is that as capital moves, contentious labour relations are also shifting from coastal cities to new sites of investment in inland provinces, creating possibilities of stronger resistance and nurturance of community-based labour power in the long run.

The third timely discussion is about Umbrella Protests and New Movement for Democracy, delivered by Vincent Sung and Sally Kincaid. Sally began the final input of the day, by discussing the fact that since 2011 the Chinese state has spent more money on internal security than on defence.  The state attempts to airbrush the resistance and subsequent repression of events of May/June 1989 out of history.  Over 2 million people are employed to censor electronic posts.  The number of blocked Weibo posts peaked on September 28th, as the Chinese state tried to prevent mainlanders discussing the Occupy Hong Kong movement. Over 300 people were arrested in China for posting solidarity messages.  Eventually the Chinese state had to report events in Hong Kong in order to condemn the umbrella movement.

There has been a steady increase in the number of strikes in China, which has accelerated since September. Sally also mentioned that China Labour Bulletin is a useful source for reported strikes but it does not show the go slows or where workers attend work but refuse to work.  Sally indicated the contradiction and tensions within Chinese society are becoming sharper.  This is particularly true in the education sector, where the children of migrant workers, do not have automatic access to the schools in the cities where their parents work, which leaves them limited and expensive choices. There are 61 million “left behind” children who live with either one parent, or grandparents or other members of the family.  Over 20 million children live with their parents in the cities, if they can attend the state run schools they have to pay, but they need to provide 5 different documents, or they have to attend migrant schools which have a very precarious existence, or not attend school at all.
Finally Sally summed up the last session, by reminding people that we should remember the hypocrisy of our own ruling class.  The tear gas used against the students had been manufactured in the UK.  She also emphasized that our job in the west was to not only point out this hypocrisy, and build solidarity for those in struggle, but to remember that China has a rich history of working class struggle, so that we can help Chinese workers re-learn their own history.

Further news, please contact Camilla Royle and Alex Callinicos at International Socialism.
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