A 2010 strike at the Nanhai Honda car plant in southern China was a turning point for the country’s labor movement — showing for the first time that a young migrant workforce could stand up and successfully fight for their rights, according to Eli Friedman, author of “Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China.”
“There were many strikes that summer in which workers won large wage increases, and in some cases, democratic union elections,” says Friedman.
Thanks to concerted censorship of both traditional and social media, many protesting workers “often don’t understand they aren’t the only ones,” says Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“They don’t recognize that these are systematic failures not local grievances.”
Because of this, protests and strikes “do not generate a kind of solidarity and political understanding within the greater population or facilitate a greater political consciousness.”
“The absolute bottom line is making sure their workers are not coordinating,” Friedman says.
“If you look at the crackdown, it is specifically aimed at the pillars of civil society that have been most effective in pushing the government to do things.”
Beijing is worried that any kind of greater political consciousness among workers “would lead to a bigger movement” that could threaten their hold on power, Wang says.
This thinking is heavily influenced by the experiences of other Communist regimes, says Friedman.
The decision by the Polish government to allow workers greater freedoms after a series of huge strikes in 1980 led to the rise of the Solidarity Union — the first non-Communist controlled labor organization in a Warsaw Pact country — and the eventual end of one-party rule.
“Solidarity played an absolutely decisive role in ending Communist Party rule in Poland,” Friedman says.
The official control of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (AFCTU), is total, and any attempt by workers to organize or negotiate outside of the official structure is seen as an attack on state power, CNN adds.
“It was never designed to function as a real trade union,” says Geoff Crothall, China Labour Bulletin’s communications director.
“Most of the so-called union officials know nothing about labor organizing or what it’s like to work on a factory production line or construction site,” Crothall says.
“They have a huge vested interest in maintaining their position.”