Chinese Workers’ Resistance

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Norm Diamond interviews Tim Pringle

TIM PRINGLE LIVES in Hong Kong, where he participates as an observer and also as a member of the editorial board of the Chinese-language magazine Globalization Monitor, the title of which speaks for itself.  The magazine covers issues of globalization as they affect workers in Asia in general and Chinese workers in particular.

A British union activist, he was active in various workplaces, mostly in the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union in the late 1980s, where he was branch secretary (roughly the equivalent of a shop steward) of Branch 547 in Halifax for four years.  Pringle learned to speak Chinese during a spell of unemployment, and “ended up in Hong Kong after I left work in the UK and basically moved to Asia on the nod really, trying to change my life I suppose.  I was asked to work for an organization called China Labor Bulletin, which works at promoting independent trade unionism in mainland China.”

Tim Pringle spoke with Norm Diamond on Diamond’s program “The Old Mole Variety Hour” on radio KBOO in Portland, Oregon, March 2004.  We have abridged the transcript for publication here. In particular, we are excerpting Pringle’s remarks from the first part of the discussion, which covered the background of the Chinese revolution, beginning with his response to a question on the meaning of the term “iron rice bowl.”

TIM PRINGLE: What an “iron rice bowl” basically means is Chinese for job security.  A result of the revolution, it applied to mainland workers in the larger cities, working for state-owned enterprises and what were called “collectively-owned” enterprises, during the fifties, sixties and seventies after the liberation in China.

The revolution in China was not a working class revolution.  I think we need to be very clear about that. It was basically a nationalist revolution, led by academics with farmers and peasants as foot soldiers.  That’s not to say the Chinese Communist Party wasn’t active in the cities.  But from 1927 onwards, following a dreadful defeat in Shanghai known as the Shanghai Massacre, when thousands of workers and strikers were massacred by Nationalist (Kuomintang—ed.) troops and gangsters, the Communist Party withdrew from the cities and never really regained its base in Chinese big cities.

So the Communist Party of China wasn’t really a working class party.  Now why did they therefore grant or allow or set up a system that gave Chinese workers in the big cities a certain amount of job security?

They were frightened of labor unrest.  They realized the potential power of labor unrest of the working class, if you like. So they knew that they had to build up a base of acceptance, if not active support, of their government in China.

Mao said the Chinese people have stood up, and they had. Imperialism in China came to a stop, almost completely, really.  The Chinese Communist Party kicked out foreign powers, very politely, and for workers in China the Revolution meant some kind of dignity, some kind of respect, and hope as well.

China had gone through not just the Second World War and the civil war with Nationalist troops, but one hundred and fifty years of warfare, famine, dreadful poverty.  And we have to take very seriously, as Chinese workers did at that time, that the Revolution—it was called “liberation”—offered liberation from that.

Chinese workers were organized in the sense that they were organized to become part of a support base for the new government.  But when we talk about this support base, we’re talking about a very small minority of the Chinese working class as a whole.

Those workers who lived in large cities like Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing, did enjoy comparatively reasonable standards of living, health benefits, access to medical care, pensions, all very important things to working class people, of course.  But they were a minority.

Most workers throughout the rest of China did not enjoy these benefits.  And the further you got away from the larger cities, the less those benefits applied, the lower the standards.

The fifties were a very important time in China.  At that time the new government was attempting to bring on board the working class.  That proved to be a very difficult task, not because the workers weren’t revolutionary, but because they were too militant.  The role of the government constantly, and even before liberation, was often to restrain working class dissent, working class militancy.

Unrest and Repression

In 1950 there was a large wave of industrial unrest where workers expressed disappointment with the gains of the revolution.  Again in ’55 after a process of nationalization of privately-owned industry in China, there was another wave of industrial unrest where workers were again expressing tremendous disappointment with the pace of change.

After 1953, and as the contradictions within the new regime, within the national barriers and parameters of the new regime became more and more apparent, the government was primarily interested in restraining and repressing labor dissent and militancy.

Interestingly, before the Chinese Communist Party implemented land reform of the early fifties and basically went after the landlords, the first people they went after were the Trotskyists inside the party, the left opposition of the Chinese Communist Party, who were rounded up and imprisoned or shipped off to Hong Kong, or whatever.

So again—I stress this is my personal view—whereas we welcome the gains of the Revolution, we have to be very realistic over propaganda of the time that still runs today over how much the Communist Party represented the demands of the working class.  I’m sure there are people in and outside China who would agree with me, and there are certainly people in and outside China who would disagree with me. But that is what my own reading and talking to people led me to conclude.

The 1950s were probably the most promising and exciting time in terms of a society that was making enormous steps, up until 1958 and the Great Leap Forward.  But throughout those years there were signs of problems emerging, in my view, inevitable problems of an undeveloped country trying to rebuild in very hostile circumstances, internationally and nationally.

During the fifties, there were two major strike waves.  And repression, or attempts to keep that down, came in a number of ways. Probably the most famous was a movement launched by Chairman Mao called “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend.”

This was basically an attempt by the government to draw criticism out, the history books will tell us chiefly from intellectuals, of whom Mao was always very suspicious of anyway, and basically hammer them with detentions or what was called “reeducation through labor.”  But recent historical research has shown that the main target of the hundred flowers movement was labor militants, and the main target was to try to curtail growing labor militancy.

The fifties ended in China after years of hope, with economic disaster and famine.  The Great Leap Forward and attempts to drag China into the twentieth century by forced accumulation through a combination of coercion and campaigning and mobilization, backyard steel furnaces and the like, was a dreadful failure.

Combined with the failures in the harvest, the years of 1959 to 1961 saw a dreadful famine, which killed tens of millions of people and killed off any sense of organized resistance, really.  I suppose people were too busy trying to find something to eat.

The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s is a huge subject.  The only thing I would say in this interview, because we don’t have enough time, is that it wasn’t particularly cultural and it certainly wasn’t revolutionary.  It was a power struggle about very real things but these weren’t revolutionary, despite all the rhetoric.

Organizing in China in the fifties and the sixties, certainly in the fifties, was very difficult.  Chinese workers took all sorts of very ingenious methods to organize, for example, when there was a strike or unrest in one town to let other workers know.

The Chinese government has always had this fear of a concept they call “to link up,” which means to organize.  To link up with workers in another town is not what you do; you risk severe consequences.  To get round this problem, Chinese workers would paint on trains going from one town to another, slogans saying “Hey, we’re on strike here. Don’t unload these goods.”  Some very ingenious methods.

There is an unfortunate stereotype of the Chinese working class as passive receivers of Communist Party largesse, particularly among state-owned enterprise workers.  You get it in the mainstream media now that in China pampered industrial workers sat around playing cards all day. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Chinese workers have a proud history of militancy, both before and after the revolution.

Workers’ Struggles Today

NORM DIAMOND: In part one of our interview, Tim told us some of the history leading up to the present and specifically some of the history of Chinese workers, both their role in the Revolution and their responses as they’ve been essentially demobilized as capitalism comes into China.

Our audience is going to be very familiar with the phenomenon of capitalist globalization; but we don’t often get a chance to see how that works on the ground, however, and comprehensively how a society as a whole is impacted.  Tell us, on the ground, for Chinese workers, what have been the effects of capitalist globalization.

TIM PRINGLE: I wouldn’t say Chinese workers have been “demobilized.”  I would say that their working conditions have come under huge attack, and that they have been “encouraged” to be as passive as possible in the face of that attack.  It’s a carrot and stick approach, the tried and tested responses of ruling classes everywhere.

First, we have to address the propaganda put out by the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank, and the Chinese government itself.  They say that capitalist globalization—the Chinese authorities tend to label this phenomenon “the socialist market economy,” I would label it “capitalist globalization”—has brought about a huge increase in gross domestic product, and national income.

If we take average incomes across the board in China, there has been an enormous increase over the last twenty years.  We have to acknowledge that, against the background that in China, by 1978, the economy had more or less stagnated.  So the base line was pretty low.

But we also have to qualify that recognition by noting who has gained.  What the last twenty-five years have done in China, basically, is create a large middle class that has considerable access to funds.  What it’s meant for the working class has been a much grimmer affair.

It hasn’t been all bad news for the working class.  If, in China, you are a worker in a large city with a good job, possibly for a state-owned enterprise, possibly for a foreign transnational company, with a reasonably secure contract—now I’m talking about three years, not about jobs for life—then you’re doing pretty well.

You’re going to have a reasonable social insurance system.  You’ve probably bought your own house by now, or anyway got a good rent on a house.  That’s a minority.

For most Chinese workers, I want to paint two very general pictures.  One is for middle-aged workers, forty-five and upwards, forced into early retirement or early redundancy, who basically have been sold out by the reforms, who spent their lives working for state-owned enterprises and then have been laid off.

First it was a temporary policy of redundancy, which has now metamorphosed into permanent redundancy, i.e. registered unemployment, or early retirement.  The problems these workers are facing is that they have no work, so their power has been removed.  Although they protest, and China’s pensioners are incredibly militant—by “pensioners” I mean forty-five and upwards, really- -early retirement workers have no power.

They can’t go on strike because they have no workplace to strike against.  So what they tend to do is block the factory gates where they used to work, or protest in front of government offices or the Labor Bureau particularly, and occasionally against the official trade union for its passivity and allegiance to the government rather than themselves.

Their demands are for unpaid wages, unpaid pensions, unpaid medical fees—they’ve lost their rights of medical reimbursement.  These people, particularly in the older areas such as Northeast China, are in a very bad way and have been abandoned.  It’s not too harsh a word.

The flip side has been a massive expansion of the working class in China.  Numerically the working class in China is bigger than it’s ever been, and getting bigger.  For me that’s a cause for optimism.  At the same time, the fact that a lot of these younger workers are coming off the farms has put a lot of pressure on farming and created a lot of surplus labor in the cities.

These urban areas are a target for transnational companies coming into China, setting up in the export zones but also further inland, employing these young workers, often eighteen, nineteen, twenty, You know China isn’t just one big sweatshop—but generally the conditions these young workers work in are pretty appalling.

We’re talking about twelve, fifteen-hour days, forced overtime, wages not being paid on time if at all, appalling health and safety conditions, sexual harassment on the job. These are conditions that working class people everywhere will be familiar with; but in China, and not just in China obviously, these workers don’t have the right to organize their own unions.

ND: One of the interesting issues in English working class history is whether people were driven off the land and then were available as a labor force, or instead were attracted by the opening up of new industry to leave the land. My question to you before was about globalization and its effects.  How would you answer that question about Chinese workers?

TP: That’s a very interesting question, and a hot topic among Chinese non-governmental organizations based in Hong Kong and increasingly in China as well, who’ve done a lot of work researching and advocating on behalf of migrant workers.  And I stress “on behalf of,” because these aren’t trade unions; they’re not about workers organizing themselves.

As to whether these young workers are leaving the land, you know the market is a violent being, a violent phenomenon.  While we’re not seeing TNCs (transnational corporations) or Chinese entrepreneurs cutting through the Chinese countryside forcing workers off the land at gunpoint, we are seeing young workers having little choice but to leave the land.

There’s no work for them on the land. There’s very little investment in the countryside.  And a lot of these young women and men are leaving the farms and sending their wages back, which then goes toward the education of their younger brothers and sisters, usually brothers, to buy fertilizers for farms, something to help keep the family afloat.

ND: That’s part of how capitalist globalization is working in China, then, undercutting agriculture, driving people from the land.

TP: Very much so. It’s kind of a dual-edged pressure, if you like. The Chinese government has taken the World Bank’s advice and sees the answer to poverty in the countryside through urbanization.  So, apart from workers coming off the land to big cities on the coast or big cities in nearby provinces, the regime is also building a hundred new towns, each with a population of over a million.

Urbanization is very much seen as the answer to poverty in the countryside, as opposed to planned, what I would call rational investment.  And this will create all sorts of environmental problems as well. To get back to your question of whether workers are leaving voluntarily: Notwithstanding what I’ve just said about the violence of the market, you know this is a complicated question.  Lots of young people leave the countryside.  One of the main reasons beside poverty is boredom.  The countryside is boring.

You talk to young workers, particularly in the export zones, who are exploited to a tremendous degree.  You ask them, do they really want to go back?  No! They still cling to this dream, this dream of being able to save enough money to either set up a little business back home, or to pay for a little brother going through school, or to expand the farm, or somehow get out of poverty.

ND: Or to have access to consumer goods, I presume.

TP: Yeah. That is a very important point.

Privatization by Stealth

ND: How would you say in Chinese, “liberate our thinking”?  (Tim answers, laughing.) And what does that mean?

TP: “Liberate our thinking” basically means “get used to being on the dole.”  It’s a term employed by the Chinese state media and the government itself, directed at older state-owned enterprise workers, faced with privatization.

The Chinese government doesn’t like to use what I would call the “p” word. It’s taboo to use in Chinese.  Because the Chinese government still clings to the legitimacy of the socialist market economy, it can’t use the word “privatization,” although increasingly the word is creeping into media discourse.

That expression, “liberate your thinking,” is basically a piece of propaganda aimed at workers.  I see it as buying into the stereotypes propagated in the foreign capitalist media about state-owned enterprise workers in China, that they’re lazy, that they’ve had it too good for too long.

“You’re on your own now boy. You get out there and look after yourself, after years of medical care, unemployment benefits and schooling for your kids, even subsidized haircuts at one point.  Those days are over. This is the real world.  This is globalization.”

ND: What has the response by workers been?  There are different groups of workers, as we’ve already heard.  Migratory workers coming from the countryside to an urban industry might have a very different understanding of their role, and what their response should be, than people in long-established industries.  With those nuances in mind, just in general what kind of a working class response are we seeing?

TP: Let’s again simplify tremendously.  Let’s take migratory workers first, and then older state-owned enterprise workers.  Just in saying that, I would say that one of the great tasks for us in trying to support workers and trade union initiatives in China, no matter where they come from—whether they’re coming from the official state union, which is pretty rare since it’s basically a bosses’ organization, or from workers on the ground—is to build unity and solidarity between migratory workers and local workers.  Let’s take migrant workers.  Their response has been, again, not the stereotype of young, easily exploitable workers who are very passive and hopeless in the face of capitalist globalization.

You can carry on with the horror stories; I could take anyone across the border to any of the new towns, and we’ll find a horror story within ten minutes.  But the flip side is that there is a recent history of young migrant workers resisting under terribly difficult circumstances, of taking action, going on strike, contacting sympathetic journalists in the media who’ll then cover their story.

They are doing anything in very difficult circumstances to get their plight noticed, and to get the behavior of unfettered capitalist entrepreneurs controlled or at least to keep it within legal parameters.  Chinese labor law on paper is not bad law; the problem is implementation.  Moving towards the state-owned enterprise workers, we’re looking at massive waves of privatization going on at the moment, so there aren’t many state-owned enterprise workers left. Actually that’s a simplification, but they’re a rarer phenomenon than they were twenty years ago. The inefficient state-owned enterprise is half gone to the wall, been allowed to go bankrupt, and those workers have been left in a very difficult position.

ND: “Inefficient” in this context means unable to compete with global capital.  It doesn’t have anything to do with ability to furnish jobs for people.

TP: Yeah, unable to compete with global capital or with private local capital.  It has nothing at all to do with meeting the needs of Chinese working people.  We’re talking about efficiency purely in Adam Smith’s terms, not in Karl Marx’s terms.

Active Resistance

ND: The worker responses you’ve mentioned, when you were talking about the migrant workers in particular, had to do with trying to get the state to carry out its laws that are on paper.  Are there any other kinds of initiatives?  Are there efforts to organize independent unions?  Is there an effort to do any kind of organizing outside the official state union federation?

TP: There are efforts all the time at active resistance, because the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions is not going to support resistance.  You know, it’s a huge organization, the ACFTU, the official state union.  I think it has well over a hundred thousand people working for it.

There are good people in there, there’s no doubt about that. But the organization is constitutionally and legally bound to the authorities, the government, the leadership of the Communist Party, which is the de facto government.  Whenever there’s a conflict of interest, which is pretty frequent inside China, the state union is always going to side with the authorities.

So in that context, any active resistance, be it a go-slow, be it a demonstration outside government offices, be it the huge demonstrations in northeast China in the spring of 2002 against unfair redundancy deals, involves independent organization.

To transform that into an actual union is pretty rare, because of repression.  If you organize a union outside the ACFTU, you will be arrested and face up to twenty years in prison.  So that is not what you’re going to do. You’re going to take different paths.

ND: And some of those paths are being taken?

TP: Every day, all the time. Chinese workers are not passive.  That is a myth.

ND: Some of your work has to do with how you project the situation in China to unions abroad, in Britain and here as well. To do international solidarity work, how should we be thinking of Chinese workers?  Are they stealing our jobs?  Are they potential allies?  Or are they something yet different from both of those alternatives?  So, as our concluding big question, how should we understand them, and what can we be doing?

TP: We should not see Chinese workers as stealing American or British or French or German jobs. To look at it in terms of job theft is negative, not in the spirit of international solidarity.  Chinese manufacturing itself has gone through a huge restructuring involving millions and millions of job losses.

I would say that Chinese workers, along with workers in any country, have to be seen by the British working class movement, the American, the French, whatever, by the African working class movement, as potential allies.  We have more, far more, in common with each other than we do with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, the White House, Downing Street, or wherever.

There is a labor activist who was recently sentenced to three years “education through labor” in northeast China, a chap called Cai Guangye.  He’s actually a doctor in the PLA. His own views are very critical of globalization in its current form.

ND: He’s a doctor in the army, the People’s Liberation Army?

TP: Yeah, and his crime, if you like, or his “error”—people who are subject to “education through labor,” which is an administrative punishment, it basically means going to prison but you don’t get a trial and you haven’t committed a crime, you’ve committed a political “error”—was providing assistance and taking photographs of laid-off workers protesting in the city of Jilin.

He got three years to be reeducated for that error of judgement.  Some of us in Hong Kong are trying to get an international solidarity campaign, at the very least to get access to medical attention.  He’s not a well man. Conditions inside these camps are not particularly good.

He needs access to medical care, but more than that, he has committed no crime or no error.  He simply provided support to workers in struggle and posted articles critical of globalization on the internet.

ND: For this kind of solidarity is there a website or a journal?

TP: Yeah, one website to look at is Globalization Monitor (  We are going to put out some material on various union websites around the world in the next few weeks.

ND: OK, so stay alert for that. And then, within our own unions, what do you recommend can be done?

TP: I would say that prisoner campaigns, providing solidarity for activists who’ve been picked up in China, are very important.  They are obviously a minority of workers in China.  Other things that we need to do outside of China are in our branch union meetings to talk about issues that are pertinent and common to Chinese workers and American workers.

We have to be clear that the ACFTU, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, is not a trade union.  No matter what you think of individuals within that, it doesn’t act or behave as a trade union.  And we have to bring the issues of the Chinese working class into a class perspective.  To me it’ crucial to take not a moral perspective, not a national perspective, but a class perspective.

ND: Then perhaps it’s my role to say this, rather than yours as a visitor, but one of our tasks is, within our own unions, to resist the kind of chauvinism that’s the easy answer that many of our unions have provided, often joining together with U.S. corporations in this plea that our jobs are being stolen by Chinese workers.

TP: Yeah, who is it said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.  Maybe that’s a bit sharp, I don’t know.

ND: Our labor movement has had its share of scoundrels.

TP: But it’s not a tradition of international trade unionism, in my view anyway, not where I come from, to take a nationalistic approach, a chauvinistic approach.  I know in reality it does happen, of course.  Chinese workers themselves are pretty chauvinistic.  I would say we on the left have to address these issues and argue class politics.

ATC 111, July-August 2004