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Vol. 76/No. 2      January 16, 2012

China: fights by toilers
heat up, economy cools
(feature article)
Protests by working people in China have increased over the recent period. In addition to a number of strikes by factory workers in November and December, residents in a fishing community on the south coast put the land question into world focus.

This is happening at the same time as a slowdown in manufacture, trade, and other economic activity highlights the fact that the anti-working-class course of the Chinese ruling bureaucracy has left the country quite vulnerable to the worldwide crisis of capitalism.

The strikes have involved thousands of workers. Their demands are over unpaid wages, relocation of factories, loss of overtime, abuse by bosses, rising production quotas, and lack of compensation after factory closures.

A strike wave hit Guangdong province in southern China in the summer of 2010. Workers in plants operated by Honda, Toyota and Foxconn fought for and won substantial wage increases, in some cases as high as 50 percent. As a result, the provincial government raised the local minimum wage.

Since then the central government has encouraged and offered incentives for domestic and foreign companies to move inland in search of cheaper labor as wages have risen in Guangdong and Shanghai, the two industrial export centers in China.

“Nowadays the cost of labor has risen to such a level that it’s no longer cost-effective to be on the eastern coast, so you’d have to be moving west as much as you can,” Francois de Yrigoyen from ManpowerGroup China told Reuters.

The 2010 strikes were led by the second generation of so-called migrant workers, many in their early 20s. Migrant workers in China are registered with the government as being from rural areas, but actually live and work in urban centers. Lacking official residency in the city, they are denied government services and other benefits, such as education, housing, medical care, food subsidies and many jobs.

Nearly two-thirds of those considered migrant workers today belong to the second generation that either grew up or were born in the cities. Only about 11 percent have any experience in agricultural work.

There were 30 million migrant workers in 1989. Today there are roughly 250 million.

In Beijing 40 percent of the population are migrant workers. In Shenzhen in Guangdong province nearly 12 million of the population of 14 million are migrants.

Increased protests over land rights

A majority of the estimated 180,000 social protests in China last year were over land rights in rural areas. Peasants accuse local officials of taking their land without offering proper compensation.

In September, residents in the fishing community of Wukan on China’s south coast took to the streets protesting seizure of agricultural land by local government and party officials. Some 1,100 acres of village land was sold to a property developer and their common fishing grounds to a large seafood company, sharply reducing basic subsistence for many families.

Residents of Wukan chased local officials out of town and for three months ran the village. An elected committee organized food distribution, defense and logistics.

The struggle intensified and residents fought off an attack by 1,000 police with water cannons and tear gas. Five of their leaders were kidnapped by the police, and one died in custody. After being under siege by the cops for more than 10 days they threatened to march through the police chains to the county capital to press their demands. Concerned with the local authorities’ inability to quell the growing unrest, a provincial Communist Party leader moved in and took control. He said residents’ claims were just and he would look into their demands. A truce was negotiated.

Land grabs—“legal” and “illegal”—have been a central part of China’s economic “miracle.” Local governments have taken over land for real estate, industries, roads, dams and power plants. Land grabs are also an important source for growing social inequality. They are a constant threat to the livelihood of the rural population, still a majority in China.

Since 1980, an estimated 50 million farmers have lost their land, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Meanwhile, the world economic crisis is beginning to bite in China. “China is nearing the end of the period of high economic growth,” according to Yu Bin, senior economist with China’s State Council. He expects 8.5 percent growth for 2012 and between 7 and 8 percent through 2017. Annual growth rates have been more than 10 percent for three decades.

Manufacturing continued to contract in December, following an even bigger slowdown in November. Export growth slowed because of a drop in demand from Europe and the U.S., and export orders fell in December for the first time in three months. Foreign investment was 10 percent lower in November than a year earlier.
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