Middle Kingdom Tales
Middle Kingdom Tales


“Socialism” with Chinese Characters—Labor Abuse and the Clampdown on Unions in the People’s Republic


      Despite its proclaimed “socialist” system, People’s Republic of China has always been notorious for its labor abuse ever since the Maoist times. When angry and starving workers in Jinzhou, Liaoning chose to strike to protest the lack of food and deteriorating working conditions, the party cadres in the factory took no hesitation to arrest the strike leaders under the charge of “counter-revolutionary subversion.”[1] Soon after, Mao Zedong gave out his notice saying that this method of quelling down workers’ protest by labeling them as reactionaries should be implemented nationwide.[2] After the reform and opening, the rapid privatization of industries and the adoption of neoliberal economic policies led to further deterioration of labor rights.

      In 1989, disgruntled workers joined the students in Tiananmen Square by protesting growing inflation and corruption. Like the students, they were worried about their livelihood and economic security. Yet their role remained peripheral. When student leaders asked the workers to exercise their power by starting a strike, it was too late, and the military has already entered Beijing and began smashing down the protest. Although the clampdown on the Tiananmen Square protest ended students’ hope for China’s democratization, the post-Tiananmen CCP accelerated their economic reform to merge China into the neoliberal global economy and resulted in very different fates for students and workers. While the young educated college students became part of China’s growing middle class and some of them even joined the Chinese Communist party, millions of workers were laid off from the state-owned enterprises with very little compensation.[3] Decades after the Tiananmen, as the decent beneficiaries of the reform and opening, some of the once young and prodemocratic students even started to oppose political liberalization and defend the establishment for the fear of economic and political instability, betraying their work-class comrades. I myself had a conversation with one of the student leaders in his college who marched to Tiananmen Square in the nineties who is a successful millionaire businessman China. He expressed support for Deng’s suppression of the students since “if the students succeeded, China may disintegrate and become like Russia.”

      Meanwhile, the liberal democracies in the world were quick to warm up their diplomatic relations with China after the Tiananmen. The United States renewed the “most favored nation” status for China in 1993. Meanwhile, various companies from the developed and democratic world saw the low-wage labor in China as a lucrative means to lower their cost and moved their factories to China. They barely bothered to negotiate with the Chinese government about the global labor standards and the Chinese government was also happy to profit from their business with transnational companies without considering the labor rights of their workers. American companies and many other western corporations conspired with the Chinese government in suppressing the Chinese working class. Moving their factories to the third world countries helped them evade domestic labor disputes.

      The Chinese workers not only had to work in the unforgiving terms of the neoliberal system but also submit to the Chinese Communist Party’s totalitarian rule. Despite the Chinese constitution’s stated rights of the workers to unionize and strike, the unions in China are just an extension of the party-state. More often than not the union leaders were both party members and corporate managers. Strikes are usually prohibited by the government and the corporates. The transformation of China into a world factory spurred millions of peasants to go into urban centers for better job and payment. These migrant workers lived under the hukou system like a second-class citizen, constantly subject to police brutality and discrimination from the urban population. Seen as the source of urban overpopulation issues, urban authorities often took harsh measures to evict the migrant workers from their cities. In 2014 to 2016, Beijing evicted almost 2 million migrant workers with brutal methods.

      As a result of prevalent unfair labor practices, China has become a hotbed for labor activism and wildcat strikes. In 2019, a Hong Kong non-profit organization China Labor Bulletin recorded nearly 1,400 strikes, which represents only 5 to 10 percent of the total. Yet due to the lack of a civil society and Chinese government’s relentless clampdown through big data management, these efforts are unlikely to become large-scale collective actions. The world’s biggest working-class remains in chains.

      During the COVID pandemic, the Chinese workers continued to experience more plight. Fangcang hospitals, China’s mobile field quarantine hospitals for its COVID patients in Wuhan, Shanghai, and Jilin were built by migrant workers who remained in those cities after the lockdown. The construction of these hospitals was speedy and the workers worked under very harsh conditions. “The most comfortable place to eat was on the toilet and I had to sleep on the dirt,” by a construction worker in Wuhan’s Fangcang hospital. Lured by the high salary, these workers became the pariahs of the city after the construction. Many of them worked under insufficient protection and contracted COVID.

      I recall one day when I was in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic. I was telling a joke to my friend. “Do you think the capitalists can be oppressive?” “Yes.” “Do you think the politicians can be oppressive?” “Yes.” “What if they come together to oppress the people?” “Oh, that would be horrible.” “No, they would become Socialism with Chinese characters.”

[1] 辽宁省委工业部10月24日《关于在职工中迅速开展一次粮食问题的思想教育运动的报吿》,转引自《墓碑—中国六十年代大饥荒纪实》,杨继绳,天地图书出版社,2009。第589—590页

Industrial Department of Liaoning Provincial Committee’s “The Report on the immediate ideological education on the workers regarding the food crisis” from “Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962,” Yang Jisheng, Tiandi Publication House, 2009, page 589 to page 590.

[2] 毛泽东:《关于推广锦州401厂解决职工闹粮问题的批语》,《建国以来毛泽东文稿1960年1月—1961年


Mao Zedong: “Notice on the wider implementation of Jin Zhou NO. 401 factory’s solution to workers’ food riots” from “Mao Zedong’s script since the founding of PRC from January 1960 to December 1961, Volume 9,” Mao Zedong, Zhong Yang Wen Xian Chubanshe, 1996, page 419.

[3] Cai, Yongshun. “The Resistance of Chinese Laid-off Workers in the Reform Period.” The China Quarterly, no. 170 (2002): 327–44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4618739, 339.


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