The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Chinese workers demonstrate

Jan 24, 2005

At the end of December, some 50,000 workers took part in a demonstration in Dongguan, a blue-collar city near Canton in southern China. This protest was a response to police violence, which had killed several protesters. The police seemed especially to target migrant workers. The greater Canton area contains Special Export Zones, where electronics, toys and other goods are made for export. Many of the workers are migrants who come there from the impoverished countryside; some in the area were forced out of their homes by the giant dam projects.

It's only the latest in a series of major protests in China. In November, 100,000 farmers in Sichuan province seized government offices in Hanyuan County, stopping work on a dam that was going to flood their lands. The government brought out 10,000 paramilitary troops against the farmers.

In October, in Wanzhou on the Yangtze River, thousands of angry protesters surrounded police cars, tipping over a police van and burning it. Over thirty thousand people stopped traffic in the streets downtown. Protesters took concrete slabs from a construction site and hurled them at the police; others entered police headquarters, took computers and office furniture outside, running off with some and burning the rest in a giant bonfire. The incident was provoked by a dispute in which a porter carrying bags got mud on a wealthy woman's pants. Her husband seized the porter's pole and beat him. The husband also bragged that he was a public official and could have the porter killed. Witnesses to the beating spread the news by cell phone, quickly surrounding the wealthy couple.

Police statistics say there were almost 60,000 protests in China in 2003, eight times the number a decade earlier. The protests include disputes against land seizures, misspent government money, forced migration, discrimination against ethnic minorities, unpaid wages or pensions, and killings by the police.

All these outbursts of anger are adding to industrial unrest, especially in the Canton region. There was a strike in October at Computime, a factory in Shenzhen. Three thousand workers blocked the main boulevard of the city; they gained a 170% wage increase. The company was fined about a quarter of a million dollars for paying below the minimum wage and using forced overtime.

Workers can barely survive on a minimum wage varying from 352 to 684 yuan, or about $42 to $82 per month. Some companies in the Special Export Zones impose 10 or 12 hour work days, six or even seven days a week. During the strike at Computime a worker told the South China Morning Post, "Our base wage is only 230 yuan a month or $28. We need to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Compensation for overtime is only two yuan an hour or 24¢. We can't survive with this wage."

In December, 12,000 workers struck another factory in Shenzhen, Uniden. The wages for a month, working 11-hour days, are $58, according to an article in The New York Times.

These examples give a sharper view of the reality of what has been called the "Chinese miracle."