by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: AP
The Arrest of Guangzhou Labor Activists
IT WOULD BE that we are seeing a new period of authoritarianism under Xi Jinping’s China. The past year has seen the detainment and arrest of Chinese feminists, human rights lawyers, ethnic minority dissidents, and now labor organizers. Nineteen Guangzhou labor activists, including the heads of four labor advocacy NGOs, were arrested on December 3rd. Ironically, this was only one day before China’s Constitution Day, a holiday to promote rule of law which had been established last year to celebrate the Chinese constitution. But here we see where law is turned into a weapon of the state—in defense of capitalism.
In retrospect, looking at the claim that free market capitalism necessarily leads to increased freedoms and the development of democracy, China would seem to be proof to the contrary. With the adaptation of a form of state capitalism in contemporary China and its economic successes in the present, we are instead seeing a new period of authoritarianism under Xi Jinping’s rule.
IBM workers on strike in March in Shenzhen, Guangdong. Photo credit: Reuters/Alex Lee
If that Chinese Communist Party for so many years touted the importance of satisfying the needs of workers, in accordance with its claimed ideology of Communism, despite the continued pretensions to Communism and Marxism of the CCP in the present it is that the needs of Chinese workers are being sacrificed on the altar of capitalist developmentalism. Guangdong strikes have doubled in past months, and November saw the highest number of protests to date this year. 2015 in China has seen close to twice the amount of strikes which occurred in 2014. No doubt the arrest of Guangzhou labor activists was a response to Guangdong militancy, Guangzhou being the capital of Guangdong province and its largest city. The increased number of strikes this year is likely a response to China’s economic slowdown and the economic crashes which have occurred this year.
While Chinese government continues to claim to safeguard the rights of workers, it is the collusion of the state and private industries that has allowed for the disregard and even repression of worker’s rights. The state acts in the interests of factory owners and corporations, as we see particularly in electronic components manufacturing. Not only is state-corporate collusion an opportunity for CCP party officials to line their pockets, but the state as a whole would like to see the development of Chinese capitalism in order to strengthen China as a nation, never mind what any human costs are.
Workers, then, are thrown under the bus by a state which nonetheless claims an ideology centered around worker rule, in favor of pushing for economic development at all costs. For all talk about the economic and political “rise of China”, is it any mistake that this rise is concurrent with a renewed period of authoritarianism and repression against workers by the Chinese state? And when workers strike or organize, the state comes in to crush dissent. So much for it being “right to rebel.”
The Authoritarian State in Defense of Capital
IN RETROSPECT, the past year’s crackdowns on dissidents only evidences the hypocrisy of the CCP. The arrest of the Feminist Five is in spite of the claim within Maoist ideology of gender equality, as in the famous phrase “women hold up half the sky”, given their arrest during the planning of a campaign against sexual harassment. During the era of China’s intense turn towards capitalism, there was nostalgia for the greater gender equality which existed during the Maoist period. But in spite of the claim of a return to Maoist fundamentals in Xi Jinping’s China, when feminist activists are defiant enough of state authority, the state acts to put them down.
We largely see much the same with crackdowns on the perceived threat of separatism in outer Chinese provinces with high ethnic minority populations, restrictions of the rights of ethnic minorities to travel, and arrests of ethnic minority dissidents when Maoist rhetoric criticized “Han chauvinism”. Or when human rights lawyers are arrested, sometimes under the justification that they are colluding with foreign powers against Chinese national interests.
Namely, if we are to establish a commonality between those whom the Chinese government has cracked down in the past year, it is that they are individuals whose social activism points to the disjuncture between the claimed rhetoric of Chinese government’s claimed rhetoric of social equality and the actual political reality in which the state largely acts on behalf of the interests of capital. This is what is shared between Guangzhou union leaders, the arrest of the Feminist Five, or crackdowns on ethnic minorities. In this fashion, contemporary China is caught between the uneven overlap of its Maoist past and present day capitalism.
Riot police standing guard over a 2010 strike in Guangdong at a Honda factory. Photo credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Actually, if it is that the Chinese state is on guard in terror of uprisings, this may be because after the Umbrella Movement the Chinese state sees threats everywhere. The Umbrella Movement was, of course, a product of the unique particularities of Hong Kong’s relation to the Chinese mainland rather than indicating possible spillover of unrest into China itself, although it is true that some of the arrested labor activists were participants in activities in support of the Umbrella Movement. The CCP is probably concerned given the close proximity of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. But in this way the Chinese state is acting in the manner of any other authoritarian state whose priority is in preserving its own power in seeing threats everywhere which may not necessarily exist.
To be sure, current events generally lead one to question as to how sincere past Maoist rhetoric towards gender equality, non-discrimination against ethnic groups were in China, or the rights of workers ever was. Even if it was that unfettered capitalism in China has led to retrospective nostalgia for the greater equality which existed in the Maoist period, perhaps in the end it was still the state whose interests trumped that of workers. Regardless, we shall see as to whose interests win out in the present, that of the state or those of workers.