Friday, July 23, 2010

The class struggle in China

If the militant strike wave in China has succeeded in doing one thing, it is to have frightened the Chinese ruling class sufficiently that it is declaring its intention to tackle the shocking increase in inequality in the country (while avoiding measures that might increase the political clout and bargaining power of labour):

The People’s Daily recognizes the severity of this potentially explosive problem. According to the article, China’s Gini Coefficient, which is an index that measures inequality, clocks in at 0.47 – very close to the 0.5 marker, which often signals risk of instability. It also mentions that from 1997 to 2007 labour remuneration as a percentage of GDP went from 53.4 per cent to 39.74 per cent. Workers weren’t the only ones to lose ground. People living in rural areas have also fallen behind their urban countrymen. In 1978 urban per capita income was 2.78 times higher than rural income. By 2009 that gap had widened to 3.33. Also, in cities, the richest 10 per cent controlled 45 per cent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 per cent only had 1.4 per cent.

The paper also outlines the main ways the government intends to tackle the problem. Implementing a wages increase mechanism, perfecting the minimum wage system, and ensuring wages are paid in a timely manner are all main priorities. The collective consultation system will be promoted. Farmers salaries will be increased. The social insurance system will be improved to cover those in the cities and countryside.

Although the article outlines other plans to create a more progressive tax system, the focus of redistributive efforts seems to be on the points mentioned above, and conspicuous by its absence, is the role of collective bargaining and reform of the ACFTU. Ironically, even the ACFTU sees the need for reform in order for collective consultation and collective contracts to play a major part in the government’s efforts to more equitably redistribute wealth. On 9 July 2010 the ACFTU announced that collective contracts would be a key ingredient in improving workers rights. In the China Daily, Li Shouzhen, spokesperson from the ACFTU noted that collective contracts will be promoted and but that, “…legislation will be needed first to make it mandatory for enterprises to set up such a mechanism, which is still lacking at most small and medium-sized enterprises…. if we made it mandatory (having employers sign collective contracts with their employees) and stepped up punishment for violators, I think workers would be placed in a much stronger position”.

That a powerful, organised labour movement might come out of the current struggles over the distribution of the social product, and even produce a space for a labour-based political opposition, is undoubtedly a more threatening prospect than temporary remuneration concessions. The lessons in organisation and tactics that workers can learn from pick up from such militancy are the greater danger than a temporary redistribution of wealth to prevent militant outbreaks. These strikes are not only winning much of the time, and winning big when they do, they are showing workers how to deal with both employers and the state, facing down police repression as well as employers' economic power. This is why, in addition to the government's commitments (which it can certainly afford with 10.3% growth) local governments are increasing the minimum wage to forestall strikes. As the world system shifts to a more obviously multipolar one, with US hegemony in slow but perceptible decline, the outcome of the struggles of the emerging Chinese labour movement will be increasingly important for the international working class as a whole. Solidarity with the Chinese working class is in the interests of workers in Britain, but I should say that learning from the Chinese working class as it experiments with ways to deal with far more difficult struggles than we face, is also paramount.