Jeffrey Wasserstrom: What the Foreign Media Misses in Covering China's Labor Unrest





[Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history at the University of California-Irvine and author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.]

Since mid May, Chinese factory workers from several Honda plants in southern China have gone on strike, calling for higher wages, better working conditions, and, according to some accounts, the right to form their own independent labor unions. The first work stoppage was a May 17 walkout by roughly 1,800 workers at a Honda parts plant in the city of Foshan; another began in early June and involves employees at a factory in Zhongshan that makes locks for the auto company. This week, another Honda supplier in Zhongshan shut down operations after workers went on strike for higher wages. Both Foshan and Zhongshan are in southern Guangdong province, a manufacturing hub and magnet for rural migrants across China seeking a better quality of life....

This strike wave has inspired a great deal of commentary in the international press. Sometimes it is treated on its own terms, and other times it is bundled together with another recent worker-related story from China: a series of suicides at the Foxconn faculty complex (also located in Guangdong Province), where Apple products are made. Overall, three key themes have emerged in the foreign coverage of recent events:

First, China's economic boom of recent decades has gradually raised expectations among Chinese workers and made them less willing to accept low wages and harsh working conditions. In coming years, China will be forced to focus not on producing low-cost goods (such manufacturing will move to poorer countries in regions like Southeast Asia) but on finding other ways to serve international markets and increasingly important domestic markets.

A second prominent theme has been that many of the people employed at the Honda factories are relatively young and comparatively well-educated. One reason this strike wave is spreading is that youthful workers, some of whom graduated from vocational schools or even colleges, are using cell phones to share information with friends and colleagues who live and work in other places, and are also exchanging ideas and updates with strangers online. Meanwhile, discussion of "rights" (i.e., the moral justification for seeking a fair wage, basic legal protections, and just treatment by the state and from employers) has become more common in China generally.

Finally, reporting on and analysis of the strikes and events at Foxconn has highlighted the fact that the main companies involved, Honda and Apple, are both foreign-owned. The government responds differently to outrage directed at these kinds of companies. The same kind of strike that would go unmentioned in the Chinese press if it occurred at a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) can be dealt with sympathetically when it takes place at one run by foreign "capitalists" -- especially given the history of Japan's aggression against China, when the company involved is Japanese, like Honda. More leeway is given to mainland journalists who want to write about abuses or simply dissatisfaction in a foreign-run factory....

While attention-getting headlines may even call to mind antecedents to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China, a more useful frame of reference may be 1925. That year's "May 30th Movement" was a struggle that began, as this strike wave did, with mid-May protests by Chinese workers at Japanese-run factories; it takes its name from the date of a massacre that involved Shanghai's foreign-run police force firing into a crowd of unarmed students and laborers. The killing of around a dozen protesters galvanized the struggle, which spread to cities throughout China and culminated in a boycott of Japanese and Western goods and a general strike by students, workers, and merchants that paralyzed Shanghai. The May 30th Movement is honored now as one of the first major event in which the Chinese Communist Party played a leading role, an upheaval that brought many new converts into the organization. Schoolbooks and the obligatory annual anniversary newspaper articles look back admiringly on the heroism and sacrifices of the martyrs of the May 30th Massacre....

The Honda protests of 2010 were certainly not inspired by the events of 1925. Still, the timing definitely affected the way that some commentators in China, from bloggers and journalists to government officials, thought about the strikes. In early June, several mainland websites ran a commentary piece whose title can be translated as "The Honda Strikers and the Foxconn Leapers -- Remembering the May 30th Movement"; the online comment threads appended to May 30th commemorations in the press included allusions to the enduring power of labor activism and the fact that "patriotic" workers in 2010, like their predecessors of 1925, were standing up boldly to Japanese employers. It would have seemed particularly ill-timed for the government to have put down contemporary strikes on this lightning-rod anniversary.

Of course, historical analogues have not stopped China's leaders from suppressing protests in the past, nor will it stop them from taking a hard line against unrest in the future. Still, history and symbolism always figures in the calculus that determines how the government responds to a given outburst. It also affects how much or little freedom the press is allowed in covering an outburst and the official line on a given struggle....


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