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How Big A Deal Are Strikes In China?

It seems like every week a news story will surface about how horrifying labor abuses in China are proceeding apace. After awhile, it all starts to blend together, since nothing ever changes. But this recent booklet from the Albert Shanker Institute, documenting the growing outburst of wildcat strikes and demonstrations around the country, is worth highlighting. The vignettes are compiled from interviews that labor activist Han Dongfang has done with Chinese workers over the past decade, through his radio show broadcast from Hong Kong. Han, whose personal story is riveting in its own right, gave a talk in D.C. this week where he estimated that strikes, many involving thousands workers, now happen daily in China. Is that a big deal? It might be.

None of these demonstrations involve China's "official" union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (which usually just orders the rabble to get back to work). In his talk, Han mentioned something I'd never heard: Although the ACFTU claims to represent 90 percent of Chinese workers, most of said "representation" consists of sending out a fax to newly formed companies, getting back a fax with some names scribbled on it, and putting the form in a filing cabinet. Indeed, the fact that many NGOs are now providing legal aid to workers and doing things the ACFTU should be doing means that state union is increasingly irrelevant.

Later, I asked Han to what extent the government tolerated these NGOs, and his reply was surprising: Labor violations have gotten so bad over the last two decades (in the Pearl River Delta manufacturing area, 40,000 fingers are broken or lost each year), that even many officials can no longer stomach it. "I don't believe people can be completely heartless," Han insisted. So the government is starting to sanction NGOs that assist workers, so long as they don't challenge the ruling party. Incidentally, Christina Larson of The Washington Monthly reported a similar dynamic vis-a-vis green activists in China—environmental degradation has gotten so severe, and Beijing so unable to rein in pollution in the provinces, that civil society groups have been given a freer hand.

Han was particularly eloquent about connecting the lack of bargaining power among Chinese workers with many of the country's other problems. Teachers, for example, have very few rights—especially in rural areas. So, not only are low pay and coerced contracts a recurring phenomenon, but, because teachers lack any sort of organized strength, education budgets, which are usually handled at the local level, frequently get raided to pay for other priorities—an industrial park, for instance. As a result, parents can't pay for their children's education, which in turn leads to child labor, and so on.

What was fascinating was how Han alternated between justified pessimism and sustained optimism. He was ambivalent about China's new labor contract law coming into effect this year—will it even be enforced?—and doubted that the Olympics would call attention to worker abuses. But he then observed that "labor rights violations have gone beyond anyone's wildest imagination" and that officials really are getting worried. Moreover, massive worker demonstrations simply weren't happening as little as a decade ago. One of the biggest questions, Han noted, is whether anyone can channel those wildcat strikes into "something systematic."

--Bradford Plumer