Class Struggle in China: The Three Nos and the Many Yeses

Posted: December 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

Contemporary Class Struggle in China

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Last year I heard a talk given by labour researcher Ralf Ruckus about contemporary class struggle in China. Ralf has spent quite a while living, researching and agitating in China, and his talk focused on China’s contemporary social conditions, workers’ struggles and class power. The level of protests and strikes in China have increased over the last few years and together with riots and peasant uprisings they are indicators of the increasing pressure for social change. Although I disagreed with some of Ralf’s ideas about class composition and the power of capital I agreed with much of his analysis and appreciated his optimism regarding the power of the proletariat in China and its potential global impact.

Recently I read another fairly optimistic viewpoint on class struggle in China, China in Revolt, written by Eli Friedman. According to his analysis; “More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the epicentre of global labour unrest.” Backing up his argument Friedman highlights “a momentous strike wave that began at a Honda transmission plant in Nanha” and how; “Since then, there has been a change in the character of worker resistance.” Most importantly, “worker demands have become offensive. Workers have been asking for wage increases above and beyond those to which they are legally entitled, and in many strikes they have begun to demand that they elect their own union representatives.”

Friedman also mentions one of the copycat strikes that followed the Honda strike which was especially notable for its militancy and organisation. In this strike hundreds of workers at an auto parts maker supplying Toyota, met secretly and decided on a strategy of “three nos:” for three days there would be no work, no demands, and no representatives. The fact that this was a successful strike is of course important (I will discuss the strikes conclusion below) but what I found most interesting was the workers’ ‘three nos’ strategy. When I read Friedman’s article I was writing a paper, titled ‘Global Revolt and the Struggle for Democracy’, examining the Occupy, Arab Spring and Anti-austerity movements as part of the contemporary wave of revolt. Due to time constraints I was unable to include in my paper how Chinese authorities had responded to global revolt by cracking down on dissent, or mention the thousands of people who occupied their village in the face of police and troops to protest a land grab by local officials. As China scholar Cheng Li explains “the Arab Spring presented a disturbing picture to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, as they could face the same outcome as the Mubarak regime.” So, “they have exerted tighter control over social gatherings, grassroots elections, the media and civil society.”

What I did cover in my paper on global revolt were the widespread experiments in direct and participatory democracy popularised by the Occupy and other movements in various parts of the world. Thinking about the ‘three nos’ strategy I considered how and why this strategy, which in many ways is writ large across China, is increasingly adopted and successful, not just there, but around the globe by those engaging in resistance and revolt. As David Graeber (2011) explains, it was the refusal of the Occupy movement “to recognise the legitimacy of the existing political authorities by making demands of them; refusing to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal order by occupying a public space without asking for permission, refusing to elect leaders that could then be bribed or co-opted;” that attracted millions of people to participate and had a majority of people declaring their sympathies. So let’s start this exploration of the ‘three nos’ strategy with arguably the most powerful of the three – no work.

 china article 2 No Work

 Work is central to capitalism as both a transformative and a constraining power. Work is the source of surplus value and a means by which people  are incorporated into capital through exploitation and the alienation of their labour. While the ability to strike, to collectively withdraw labour has been central to the power of the proletariat since workers first organised. There are many different forms of strikes and recently we have seen a wave of general strikes in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Uruguay, Bangladesh, Slovenia, India, Portugal, Lebanon, Syria, Italy, Nepal, South Korea and Chile. Although these were short lived, some general strikes and many smaller scale strikes last weeks, months and sometimes years. In China, as Eli Friedman reports, “While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes – there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.” The purpose of these strikes is to achieve various goals and often workers’ refuse to return to work until they get what they want. However, the refusal of work can be characterised by a much wider variety of practices including other forms of industrial action, voluntary unemployment, refusing or avoiding certain types of jobs, absenteeism, sabotage, etc. While organised strikes around wages, working conditions, health and safety, workers’ control, limits to productivity and shorter hours are well recognised forms of work refusal, smaller scale and individual instances are often neglected and are harder to recognise and measure.

The refusal of work is not a refusal of all work but against the conditions of work; against work as paid labour in a hierarchical management system and against work that valorises capital. Importantly work refusal provides a point of commonality for all sectors of the proletariat and thus a basis for mutual understanding. This is because both waged and unwaged workers are under constant pressure to work for capital and the struggles of the waged and unwaged are inherently related through the common refusal of work. Through the refusal of labour for capital the power of the class creates times and spaces relatively free of commodified labour and capitalist command.  In the time set free from wage-labour, the proletariat can self-organise their work and move beyond being a worker for capital.

A ‘no work’ strategy is a withdrawal of the power of labour from capital and the use of that power to resist capitalist domination, to struggle against capital and to create alternatives to it.  It is a strategy of using class power; of people deciding what they do, how they do it and why they do it. As we learn to organise production for our own needs and desires, a ‘no work’ strategy can be extended until there is no work for capital – through the constant expansion of alternative forms of labour, mutual aid, cooperation and collaboration. While workers are on strike, and when people occupy squares, parks, universities or other workplaces, they can experiment with controlling their own lives and advance new social relations which are the basis for more widespread and powerful resistance and revolt.

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No Demands

Although the ‘three nos’ strategy of Chinese workers included ‘no demands’ they did actually have demands (see below). However, initially having ‘no demands’ made it clear that there would be no negotiations until the workers decided to negotiate, that they were the ones with the most power and they would be exerting and demonstrating their power for as long as they decided. Across the globe there are wide ranging debates about the strategy of making demands on capital and its state forms. Among the questions being asked are: Should movements have a unified set of demands? Do movements often have too many demands? Is the absence of agreed demands an obstacle to the effectiveness, impact or longevity of movements? Do demands cede power to those we oppose, or lead to co-option? Are demands suggestions for the powerful, expressions of what is non-negotiable or the communication of common needs and desires that can help to frame and organise struggles?

There is a well-recognised danger that making demands of those who cannot, and will not, provide what we really want involves remaining on the terrain of capital and its state forms, trapped within the logic of capitalism. Yet, while creating alternative practices in the here and now is crucial, we also need to consider and articulate suggestions for how alternative spaces, times and practices can be widened and extended, creating the agendas, processes, infrastructures or institutions that can sustain and expand a long-term global revolution. We should also be careful that short-term demands don’t end up limiting our imagination. If ‘our demands’ are not what we actually want, need or desire shouldn’t we be honest about that? Perhaps, when we project into the future, instead of formulating demands we should be thinking more about ‘statements of intent’; explaining what we intend to do for ourselves, without capital and its state forms, proclaiming the type of action we are taking and intend to develop, and outlining the work required to create new ways of producing, organising and living.

Rather than just making demands of governments and corporations, or drawing up programs for the future, many in the contemporary movements of revolt have created alternative places, occasions, processes and practices, where the struggle for power has become more clearly an immanent contestation of existing economic and political forms. Rather than making demands, movements in revolt have often provided a multitude of suggestions about how to improve our lives and confront obstacles. These suggestions for change are not only theories or slogans, but the living practice of class struggle. In the political communities constructed by those in struggle we see a common commitment not to ask for or win, but to realise, our needs and desires, an understanding that what we want has to be enacted, not demanded.

No Representatives

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  It is easy to appreciate why Chinese workers decide to have no representatives. While officially Chinese workers are often ‘represented’ by state-sanctioned unions, Ralf Ruckus explains; “The unions are not on the workers’ side but openly on the bosses’ side and try to prevent struggles. So workers have to self-organise.” In China “if you organise a struggle and it ends with direct negotiations between workers and the boss, usually the local government will ask the workers to elect representatives to negotiate. Afterwards (the representatives) will get sacked by management. So in some struggles workers just won’t elect anyone, and flyers with their demands are thrown down from the dormitory into the factory compound. Or a piece of paper will go down the line, saying strike today at 5 o’clock . . . Often management has to just raise wages because they don’t know who to attack or who to fire.”

Over the past few decades, in many parts of the world, important sites of organised workers’ power have been restructured and militant workers have been targeted for the sack. Anti-union laws have severely restricted the ability to collectively bargain, to organise on the job and to take industrial action. During the same period, in many ways traditional unionism has become outdated and unable to represent student workers, unemployed workers, cash-in-hand workers, the poor, the mobile, casual and flexible workers on short-term contracts, all of whom actively participate in social production and wealth creation. Many labour movement organisations are bureaucratic, hierarchical, anti-democratic and authoritarian. In Australia the neo-liberal Australian Labour Party, which fairly accurately describes the union movement as its industrial arm, has consolidated the corruption, conservatism and corporatism of many unions. This has resulted in a sharp fall in unionisation rates.

As workers have moved away from unions, alternative forms of organisation have sprung up reflecting the changing nature of the workforce, using new strategies and diverse structures that seek to bypass bureaucracy, empower the individual and actualise participatory democracy. These alternatives have included the alter-globalisation, anti-war, environmental, Occupy, Arab Spring and anti-austerity movements. Within these movements we see growing critiques of, and scepticism towards, representation. Many movement participants see democracy as central, and challenge the anti-democratic power of existing institutions and processes. They refuse to be represented, direct powerful critiques against the structures of representative government and champion the inclusive and open involvement of direct democracy.

The importance of self-representation and the need for democratic activities that are independent of corporatised unions, bosses and capitalist state forms is widely recognised. After-all, this is how we already survive capitalism and construct alternative ways of living. While the proletariat continues to utilise incorporated unions and capitalist state forms when necessary, these are more likely to be used against the class and this is commonly understood. That is why the proletariat continuously creates complex, decentralised, anti-authoritarian, street, neighbourhood, community and global networks of autonomy and solidarity.

The Many Yeses china article 5

Although many unions, workers’ organisations, social democratic and state-centred ‘left’ groups tend to support capital and its state forms, they can also be part of proletarian movements. Attempts to impose a binary logic on the proletariat, forcing a reduction of its complexity to a ‘no to capital’ and  ‘yes to communism or anarchism’, has been answered by the alter-globalisation movement’s slogan of ‘one no, many yeses’. The movements in revolt are diverse, fluid and multitudinous, since those participating advocate and practice a wide range of tactics and strategies. As I mentioned above, the Chinese workers who deployed the ‘three nos’ strategy eventually elected representatives, negotiated with the boss, got what they demanded (a significant wage rise) and went back to work.  By committing to strike for three days without demands, they anticipated mounting losses both for their employer and for Toyota’s larger production chain. Their strategy worked. On the third day, as they had planned, the workers elected twenty-seven representatives who went into negotiations and won the workers’ central demand.

Struggles like these can clarify how the proletariat tries to increase its power both in its relations with capital and autonomously. Struggling for improvements within the system can be educational, assist self-organisation, expose the limits of reform and expand proletarian power. Eli Friedman explains that in China “workers are winning, with many strikers capturing large wage increases above and beyond any legal requirements. Worker resistance has been a serious problem for the Chinese state and capital and . . . the central government has found itself forced to pass a raft of labour legislation. Minimum wages are going up by double digits in cities around the country and many workers are receiving social insurance payments for the first time.” While “the past two years alone have brought a qualitative advance in the character of worker struggles.”

Yet Friedman also argues that workers in China “are alienated from their own political activity. A profound asymmetry exists: workers resist haphazardly and without any strategy, while the state and capital respond to this crisis self-consciously and in a coordinated manner.” However, this view fails to properly recognise the sophistication, complexity and multitudinous power of proletarian strategy in China. Friedman claims that; “Demands for wages have not expanded into demands for more time, for better social services, or for political rights.” Yet, this is only partially true and many struggles have occurred around time, services and rights. Importantly, as Friedman explains; “Every strike in China is organised autonomously, and frequently in direct opposition to the official union” and “migrants, increasingly, have simply been refusing to take the bad jobs they used to flock to in the export processing zones of the southeast.” These strategies have “strengthened workers’ power” suggesting a proletariat on the front foot and capital on the defensive.

Due to the migrant struggles Friedman mentions the Chinese government is implementing significant changes to the rights of and access to services for migrant workers and loosening restrictions on gaining local residency. Meanwhile, the relocation of industrial capital from coastal regions into central and western China is not only due to lower wages, as Friedman argues, but also because workers increasingly refuse to migrate. As China scholar Cheng Li explains, a manual labour shortage in coastal cities in recent years reflects the growing political consciousness of so-called vulnerable social groups, “especially among the younger generation of migrant workers, to protect their own rights. They have become increasingly resentful over all sorts of discriminative policies against migrant workers, farmers and urban poor. They have moved from one job to the next in order to receive a well-deserved, decent salary. At least partly due to their tireless demands, China has recently witnessed a dramatic increase in wages.” Rather than fleeing worker’s power, as corporations often do (e.g. to cheap labour countries), in China bosses are also chasing the proletariat as class resistance powerfully impacts capitalist development. As migrants gain more rights on the coast and capital moves to the interior, where people have long-term connections, both the coast and interior offer the possibility of establishing more durable class networks and class organisation. Importantly, we can see that through strikes and other forms of work refusal the proletariat in China is increasingly not demanding more time but taking more time.

In China, and across the globe, many workers understand that economic, political and social struggles are intertwined and there has been a rediscovery of the city, the street, the park and the home as crucial sites of capitalist production and class struggle. Mark Levine explains that in China protest “networks are becoming denser, best practices for protesting and otherwise resisting abuses from land expropriation to exploitative working conditions are being shared, and slowly but surely Chinese society is gaining the experience and courage to challenge a seemingly powerful state,” helping to shape combined environmental, labour and democracy movements.  “As technological developments make the ‘Great Fire Wall’ of China increasingly porous, Chinese workers will become more integrated into global civil society networks, both strengthening and drawing strength from them.”

Since useful forms of class organisation change with the change in class composition, it is helpful to think about the issue of class organisation in its most basic sense: the elaboration of cooperation among people in struggle against capital. None-the-less, we shouldn’t be blind to the inadequacy of small victories within capitalism. It’s important to recognise the serious limitations to reforming capitalism, seeking some improvements to wages, working and social conditions, etc. By recognising the actuality of existing communism we can see more clearly beyond capital. Communism is alive in China, not as a state or a Party, but as a living movement of movements that continues to threaten, challenge and go beyond capital and its state forms. This movement isn’t just a demonstration, or prefiguration, of a better future, nor is it just a new world in the shell of the old; it is also the realisation and continuation of alternative worlds that are both old and new, outside and beyond the shell of the capitalist world. The communist movement is not focused on making ambit claims, providing examples of how we want to live, or on creating temporary utopias. Rather it is a movement that actually and continually creates better lives, repeatedly generating rich and rewarding social connections and organisational forms. As Chinese workers refuse the work of capital and take control of their own labour; as they reject anti-democratic representation and develop self-representation; as they stop demanding and instead construct more durable and valuable living alternatives; they increasingly join the global movements of revolt that are powerfully moving away from capitalism.

Nick Southall

  1. […] Class Struggle in China: The Three Nos and the Many Yeses […]

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