Watch out when China coughs

Posted on April 22, 2016


If Wall Street sneezes, the world catches cold. That expression — and variants of it — refers to the American stock exchange crash of 1929 that signalled the start of what is still known as the Great Depression.

Today it would probably be more accurate to say that if China coughs, an already economically weakened world faces the threat of double pneumonia. And there are clear signs that the Asian giant already has the sniffles.

What we tend to read about is that China has a lesser demand for commodities, is dumping surpluses on world markets and that the Shanghai Stock Exchange is depressd. But not much seems to be known about the human power behind what is still a relatively fast-growing, but evidently creaking, economy: the state of labour and industrial relations in China remains, for the most part, opaque.

So the image most commonly held is of a huge, low paid, highly regimented and largely docile workforce in the cities and economic zones that have mushroomed around that country. The workforce is certainly huge, low paid, and still quite regimented. But it is far from docile. And there are signs that the world’s largest national labour force is growing increasingly restive.

As Professor Mike Davis of the University of California has noted: “Chairman (President) Xi Jinping may soon confront the largest labour rebellion in history”. This comment is included in the book, China on Strike, published this month in the United States. Here is a series of interviews with worker activists and their supporters who have, against what might seem incredible odds, continued to struggle and, at times, managed to wrest concessions from state and private corporations.

But much of the world — and South Africa is no exception — hears little about labour unrest and the struggle for rights in a country where censorship and political repression remain current. Trade unions, not officially approved by the state, are not condoned and most of the news circulates in Chinese and on online platforms such as Weixin and Weibo.

So it is not surprising that, in 2014, little or no information was available when nearly the entire 40 000-strong workforce at the world’s largest athletic shoe maker, Yue Yuen, downed tools. But that was only one of many actions around China taken by workers, in some cases backed by students, especially since the the chill winds of the global crisis began to be felt.

Waves of mainly young workers, many of them women, have been able to build what is starting to look like a formidable challenge to the one-party dictatorship and the capitalist system. Many of their tactics and their demands have distinct echoes of the time the modern union movement emerged in South Africa.

Yet, in what seems a supreme irony, much of the trade unions leadership of Cosatu, along with the South African Communist Party and the leading figures in the ANC, still look to China as a potential way to a more prosperous future. However, in many cases, these are the same people who, only a few years ago, hailed then new governments in Brazil and Venezuela as providing signposts to economic and social salvation.

Cosatu, for example, called on South Africa to emulate Brazil and have its “Lula Moment”; in other words to follow the lead of President Ignacio Lula da Silva to a prosperous future. Others, including Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema, hailed Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez as a signpost to economic and social salvation. Both countries are now teetering on the brink of chaos.

The only common factor in this follow-a-leader game seems to be the term “socialism” and moves toward the nationalisation resources. What China on Strike underlines is the fact that we live in one world and that we have yet to see a truly democratic alternative to variations on the same economic system, whether dominated by the state, private individuals or corporations.

So long as the system is based on profit-driven competition, whether between companies, regions, countries or corporations, very little is likely to change. It is a lesson the labour movement in particular must take to heart.

*China on Strike – narratives of workers’ resistance is published by Haymarket Books