Labor unrest presents dilemma to China’s ruling party


china labor PRC-Flag-1-800x500_cThe Chinese workforce of Walmart, the world’s largest retail chain has put the ruling Communist Party in an uncomfortable position, publicly testing its Marxist commitment to defend the working class and pitting that against its fear of independent labor activism, The New York Times reports:

Ever since the Solidarity trade union helped topple communist rule in Poland, Beijing has sought to prevent the emergence of a nationwide labor movement, suppressing efforts by workers to organize across industries or localities. But authorities appear to be hesitating in the case of Wal-Mart, whose workers have complained of low wages and a new scheduling system they say has left them poorer and exhausted…. The government appears to be keeping a distance because it is worried about provoking a backlash, or about acting on behalf of a prominent U.S. company against Chinese workers at a time when nationalism in China is rising.

“If the Chinese authorities try to suppress the workers on behalf of Walmart,” said Wang Jiangsong, a Chinese labor scholar, “it will hurt the country’s image.”

china labor disputes clbThe Wal-Mart movement is “probably the most substantive example of sustained, cross-workplace, independent worker organizing we’ve ever seen in China’s private sector,” said Eli Friedman, a labor scholar at Cornell University.

Activists are using online forums like WeChat, a popular app, to vent about company policies, share protest slogans and discuss plans to coordinate demonstrations for maximum effect, The Times adds:

From July through September, there were 124 strikes and protests at service-sector firms, about double the number last year, outpacing episodes in manufacturing for the first time since at least 2011, according to China Labour Bulletin…..Labor activists at Walmart have cited the ideals of President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party’s history of protecting workers, and experts said they appeared to be benefiting from a belief among some officials that the influence of foreign companies such as Walmart should be curtailed.

chinalaborbulletin“We can only expect that online organizing will continue to break down local barriers,” said Keegan Elmer, a researcher for China Labour Bulletin, an advocacy group in Hong Kong.

Across China this autumn, the party is turning the obscure anniversary a cherished political touchstone into a cause for passionate celebration, The New York Times adds:

It has been 80 years, people are told ad nauseam, since the end of the Long March, the 10,000km retreat of communist forces that established Mao Zedong’s pre-eminence and gave the party its soul. More than 80,000 people died in the march, which began in 1934, but the bravery of the soldiers inspired generations of Chinese people to rally behind the party and its leader. ..Mr Xi has used the Long March more expansively than his predecessors, linking it to his signature slogan of a “China Dream”, a call to build a prosperous, more powerful nation with a deeper respect for traditional culture.

china soft powerAnne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has challenged the official narrative, which portrays the march as a victory for the communists and a turning point in their efforts to win over the public, The Times adds:

Pointing to testimonials of foreign missionaries captured by communist soldiers, she argues that it was instead a humiliating moment in which Red Army soldiers ransacked villages and abused peasants. But by invoking the journey, she said, Mr Xi is betting that the party’s idealised version of history will resonate across generations.

“This is a heroic narrative that is meant to inspire young people in China,” Prof Brady said. “Xi wants to remind people what is unique and distinctive about China and to ask: How did we get to where we are today? What is this journey that we’re on? What are we aiming towards?”

China’s constitution allows independent candidates to run in local elections but it is a futile exercise for those who dare to get their names on the ballot, the BBC reports:

In the heart of Beijing’s old alleyways, the polling station is bathed in autumn sunlight. It is busy. An elderly man has turned up with his wife on the back of his tricycle. Three nurses, clutching their voter registration certificates, arrive on foot in deep conversation while election officials and policemen oversee the whole affair. On the surface, it is a scene that would be recognisable to voters in democratic countries the world over. But of course, this is China and the reality is very different.

ChinademocratizeThe legislature is widely considered to be a rubber stamp of Mr Xi and the Communist Party. In recent years, activists and scholars have urged the government to allow more competition in local elections to give people a way to voice their frustrations, The Times reports:

The Communist Party, however, has been reluctant to change course. In 2011, as independent candidates embraced social media to outline policy proposals and rally supporters, the government intervened, threatening volunteers and refusing to add independents to ballots. …The elections this year are the first of their kind under Mr Xi, whose tenure has been marked by tighter control of civil society and a harsh treatment of dissidents.

“Improving the People’s Congress system is a necessary step toward reform,” said Dr Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “If this route is blocked, then it could prove hard to achieve social stability in the future.”

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